His book called gay people "vile." Now, a federal judge says she may rule within the next month whether the city of Atlanta fired its fire chief over his religious views.
Kelvin Cochran lost his job in January of 2015, after self-publishing the book "Who Told You That You Were Naked?" It includes passages that referred to homosexuality as "vile, vulgar and inappropriate" and akin to "bestiality."
When concern was raised about the book in late November 2014, Cochran was suspended for 30 days. His lawyer, Kevin Theriot, contends the chief was punished for his religious faith, but attorneys for the city argued that it was Cochran's actions during his suspension while an investigation was underway that got him ousted.
City lawyer David Gevertz pointed out that Cochran had been directed to not make public comments about his suspension, but instead helped launch a PR campaign with the Georgia Baptist Convention that resulted in thousands of angry e-mails being sent to City Hall.
"We did not fire Chief Cochran because of his religious beliefs," said Atlanta Chief Counsel Robert Godfrey. "It was about trust. It was about his campaign to have people contact the mayor and things like that afterwards."
Theriot contends that Mayor Kasim Reed's public statements and social media posts contradict that, including one in which Reed made clear that he did not share the anti-gay views expressed in Cochran's book. The lawsuit points out that there were "zero instances of discrimination" by Cochran against any employees, and so Theriot says the rest of what the city says is a pretext.
"There are a few isolated passages that they take out of context to try to depict Chief as being hateful, when in fact, Chief Cochran's beliefs require him to treat everybody equally--and the only evidence before the court is that what he always did," says Theriot.
Theriot acknowledged that some copies of Cochran's book were given to men on the job, but he insists they were from people who asked for it and/or shared similar beliefs as the chief. Gevertz pointed out in court that the book created a hostile work environment and could leave the city open to lawsuits from disgruntled employees or unsuccessful candidates once the views of Cochran, a member of the mayor's cabinet, were known publicly.
Cochran's lawsuit seeks back pay after his suspension and termination, as well as reinstatement. He has also filed a separate complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Cochran says his childhood dream was to become a fire chief, and he says the discrimination and racial slurs experienced in his early years working in Louisiana combined to make him vow that if he were ever in a position of authority, no one would face discrimination because they were a minority under his leadership. Yet, he says, that is why the city terminated him.
"I was shocked that writing a book encouraging Christian men to be the husbands and fathers and men that God had called us to be would jeopardize my 34-year career," said Cochran on Friday. "It's still unthinkable to me that the very faith and patriotism that inspired my professional achievements and drove me to treat all people with love, equity, and justice, are actually what the government used to end my childhood dream-come-true career.
"In the United States of America, true tolerance should be a two-way street for all Americans," Cochran continued. "No one deserves to be marginalized or driven out of their profession because of their faith."
U.S. District Judge Leigh Martin May grilled lawyers on both sides with questions about the cases they cited in support of their arguments, and says she will write a detailed analysis and likely issue a ruling in about three weeks.
The attorneys are seeking summary judgment, meaning they are asking the judge to decide the case. If she cannot rule on every issue raised, says Judge May, the Cochran case will go to trial on the ones she cannot resolve, putting the questions in the hands of a jury. A trial would likely be held next spring.
Any jury pool will likely include some people like Tonya Ditty, who tells WSB that she has been a longtime supporter of Cochran since the case began in 2014. She attended Friday's hearing and says she was also at a rally at the state Capitol for him. Ditty says she is concerned about "the trampling of religious rights," no matter what religion.
"When our Founders wrote the Bill of Rights, they did not pick a religion," says Ditty. "This is fitting for everyone. I think that often is said that, 'Oh, the Christians just want protection.' This is for any religion. I don't think it's ever been stated that we are trying just to protect Christians."
Ditty, who says she is a Christian, says people of faith are being stifled.
"I either have to live out my faith in church or in my home, but dare me come out into the marketplace of ideas, and then I'm under attack," she says.