The case of a former fire chief who was fired for attending a leadership training at a church will be heard in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on March 27.
Ron Hittle of Stockholm, California, was fired from his job more than a decade ago for attending a leadership conference that took place in a church, even though his manager had asked him to attend leadership training. He had been fire chief for 24 years.
Hittle learned about the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit from a business magazine and decided to attend because it was a renowned leadership seminar that featured a “pop up business school” with stellar speakers from various backgrounds, including his own Christian worldview. He invited three of his staff members who were also Christians to join him, and he put his attendance on the public city calendar so his supervisors would be aware.
Two months later, the deputy city manager—the same supervisor who had asked Hittle to attend leadership training—told him it was unacceptable that he attended a Christian-affiliated seminar, even though Hittle explained that the Summit was the best leadership training he had ever attended and that it was highly beneficial for his career. In November 2010, the city manager confronted Hittle with a list of 10 “charges,” and the first five were all related to his religious faith and activities. According to Hittle’s attorneys, the city manager threatened Hittle, saying that if he didn’t accept a demotion, he would drag his name through the mud and conduct an investigation that would be embarrassing for him and his family.
After several months of investigating, the city fired Hittle, in October 2011, making clear in his termination letter that he was being fired for his attendance at a Christian-affiliated seminar.
In March 2012, Hittle fired a complaint of religious discrimination with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC), which gave him the right to sue the city. With the help of Alan Reinach of the Church State Council, Hittle sued in federal court in California, arguing that he experienced unlawful religious discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act because he was fired for attending a religious seminar and allowing coworkers to join him. The district court, however, disagreed and ruled for the city in March 2022, without allowing the case to go to a jury.
On appeal, First Liberty Institute and Baker Botts LLP joined Hittle’s legal team and will present the case on March 27. “Our team will present Hittle’s religious discrimination claim to the Ninth Circuit, arguing that there is ample evidence of religious discrimination and the case should go to trial before a jury,” First Liberty said its summary of the case on firsliberty.org.
In a brief filed before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last September, First Liberty said: “Chief Hittle presented ample direct and circumstantial evidence that religious discrimination was a cause of his termination. Both decisionmakers in Chief Hittle’s termination made discriminatory comments about Chief Hittle’s religion, claiming he was part of a ‘Christian Coalition’ or ‘church clique.’ Attendance at the so-called ‘religious event’ was specifically mentioned in the notice of termination issued by the City, and the City’s investigator determined it was one of Chief Hittle’s most serious acts of alleged misconduct. Chief Hittle also presented evidence that undermined the City’s other stated reasons for his termination, indicating that those reasons were invented to cover up the City’s discrimination.”
Chief Hittle’s case adds to a growing list of major legal battles First Liberty is fighting to protect religious employees. First Liberty said in the article that religious discrimination in the workplace in the current extreme “woke” cancel culture is a growing problem. Corporations continue to defy the law by punishing, demoting, harassing and firing workers over their beliefs and convictions, the law firm said. The outcome of these cases will affect every employed person of faith and their protection under the law.
“We’re asking the court to allow the case to proceed to a trial before a jury, which could finally right the wrongs done to this passionate and courageous public servant,” First Liberty said.