Former California Fire Chief Fights for Religious Liberty

Former California Fire Chief Fights for Religious Liberty

First Liberty attorneys have filed a brief of appeal on behalf of former fire chief Ron Hittle, who was fired from his position by the city of Stockton, California, for attending a leadership conference at his church.

In 2010, the deputy city manager asked Hittle and his staff to attend leadership training. Knowing that budget cuts limited their options, Hittle ruled out several out-of-state training opportunities, and instead, focused on trainings closer to home. That’s when he came across Willow Creek Church’s Global Leadership Summit in a business magazine. The event had great reviews, and the fact that it was broadcast to sites around the world—including Hittle’s home church—made it an affordable choice for Hittle and his team.

Hittle invited three of his staff members to attend the conference with him. They paid for the tickets with their own money, and Hittle logged the two-day conference on the public city calendar so his supervisors were aware.

Yet after the Global Leadership Summit, the same supervisor who asked Hittle to attend leadership training confronted him and said it was unacceptable that he attended a Christian-affiliated seminar.

Hittle and the other three staff members attested to the exceptional leadership advice they received from the conference, as well as the practical tools and resources they learned to implement into their specific leadership positions.

Even so, several months later, Hittle was informed that he was under investigation for “participating in activities in furtherance of religions.” Hittle was told he could avoid the investigation if he agreed to a demotion to battalion chief. When Hittle refused, the city manager threated Hittle, saying, “I’ll drag your name through the mud” and conduct an investigation that “will be embarrassing for you and your family.” Another supervisor referred to Hittle and other Christians in the office as a “Christian Coalition” and “church clique.” 

The city officially fired Hittle in October 2011. The notice of termination Hittle received specifically mentioned that his attendance at the Global Leadership Summit was one of his “most serious acts of misconduct.”

Hittle then filed a complaint of religious discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which in turn gave him the right to sue the city. He argued that he experienced unlawful religious discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act because he was fired for attending a Christian seminar and allowing Christian coworkers to join him.

In March 2022, a district court ruled in favor of the city, without allowing the case to go to a jury. But Hittle refuses to give up. 

“With our recent appeal, we’re hopeful the 9th Circuit will recognize this direct evidence of discrimination, allow a jury to decide Chief Hittle’s case and bring him one step closer to receiving the justice he deserves,” said Hittle’s attorneys at First Liberty. “ … Forcing Americans to choose between their religious belief and their livelihood is not just outrageous. It’s illegal. Our nation’s laws protect people of faith so they should not have to face that difficult choice.

“ … we must protect the rights of Americans like Chief Hittle to practice their faith without fear of losing their job. The outcome of his case could impact people of faith across the country and their protection in the workplace.”

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