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UPDATE - Attorneys for Kelvin Cochran filed a complaint on his behalf with the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission claiming the ousted Fire Chief faced religious discrimination by the City of Atlanta as a basis of his termination. Cochran swore out the complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by the City of Atlanta on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Attorney Jonathan Crumly filed an EEOC complaint Wednesday on behalf of Cochran, who was fired this month after complaints about his self-published 2013 book, “Who Told You You Are Naked?”


ORIGINAL ARTICLE - The recent termination of Chief Kelvin Cochran brings another controversy related to the religious beliefs of our fire department leadership. The question here is, 'what are the limitations on our leaders to express their religious viewpoint in the workplace?'


There are certain rights and liberties afforded to the citizens of our country found under the First Amendment of the Constitution. The First Amendment guarantees freedoms concerning religion, expression, assembly, and the right to petition.  It forbids Congress from promoting one religion over others and also restricting an individual's religious practices.  It guarantees freedom of expression by prohibiting Congress from restricting the press or the rights of individuals to speak freely.   


Is there a fine line that our leaders must not cross in expressing their religious beliefs and does crossing that line interfere with their ability to lead in the public sector? Much more important, does your religious beliefs affect your ability to be an effective leader? 


In this current controversy, there was a judgment call on the part of the Mayor to uphold the City's diversity stance providing a discrimination free workplace balancing the Chief's stated belief against homosexually and other religious beliefs expressed in a book he authored.


Does distribution of the book to the firefighters violate the separation between church and state; does the failure to obtain permission to author such book violate the individual's freedom of speech and finally will this termination cause a chilling effect on similarly situated fire chiefs? Obliviously there are many more issues that we may never see in the Mayor decision. However, is termination the right course of action?  


Personally, as a Catholic, I have worked with leaders with many beliefs who were effective leaders. They did not proselytize their beliefs, we did not discuss our religious beliefs over coffee or lunch and we respected each others beliefs. Is there room for outward bias towards one group over another while serving in the public sector? 


In Chief Cochran's situation, there did not appear any outward bias towards any protected groups or others in the Atlanta Fire Department. As a general rule, biases or beliefs should not be a part of our industry. We already have enough biases that are problematic in the fire service, such as discrimination, testing bias, gender bias, race bias, religious bias, and other biased belief systems that need to be left at home and do not become a part of the workforce.


The fire service has a lot of work to do in all of these areas.


In the City of Atlanta the Vision, Mission and Core values are:

Vision - Atlanta Fire Rescue strives for excellence in emergency preparedness and response to enhance our customer focused, innovative role as industry leaders while overcoming expanding risks.
Mission - Atlanta Fire Rescue provides prompt quality services to our stakeholders that promote safety and security, enhance sustainability, and enrich the quality of life through professional development and dedication to service.

Core Values - Integrity, Competence, Excellence, Honesty, Predictability, Accountability, and Ism-free


Did the Mayor violate these stated core values in the termination of Chief Cochran? The courts, of course, will determine the outcome of this controversy. In the meantime, the leadership of the fire service needs to re-evaluate how religious and other beliefs systems, individually or organizational held biases, are a part of the fire services.

I am conflicted on this issue. What about you?


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Comment by John K. Murphy on January 13, 2015 at 3:06pm

Paul, thanks for your commentary. According to the Mayor, it was the lack of judgment on the part of the Fire Chief. I am sure there were other reasons which will become evident as this issue progresses and most probably a First Amendment or Freedom of Religion issue. The Chief's outspoken and published views about homosexuality was the precipitating factor but continuing to discuss the issues was the deciding factor. We'll see.

Comment by Paul Morley on January 13, 2015 at 2:55pm

Was Chief Cochran terminated only for authoring a book?  He was told by Mayor Reed not to discuss his suspension until the investigation was completed.  Chef Cochran addressed the Baptist Convention and talked about his suspension.  He therefore disobeyed a directive from the mayor, who happens to be his boss.  His going public with his complaint, after being told not to, was the prevailing factor in his termination.

The Vision,Mission, and Core values stated in the blog are the ones that Chief Cochran wrote for the Fire Rescue Department, not ones written by the city before he was hired.

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