Serving His Community as Fire Chief

Ron Hittle served his community as a firefighter for 24 years. When he became Fire Chief in 2006, he did his best to improve the fire department and lead his staff effectively. Hittle is also a devout Christian who sought to live out his faith in the workplace.

In 2010, the Deputy City Manager asked Hittle and his staff members to attend leadership training. Chief Hittle learned about the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit from a secular business magazine, and he decided to attend because it was a renowned leadership seminar that featured a “pop up business school” with “stellar” speakers from various worldviews including his own Christian worldview. Chief Hittle allowed three of his staff members who shared his Christian faith to join him, and he put his attendance on the public city calendar so his supervisors would be aware. The firefighters paid for the two-day seminar with their own funds.

Fired Because of His Faith

Just two months later, the same supervisor who asked Hittle to attend leadership training told him it was unacceptable that he attended a Christian-affiliated seminar. 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 5 were all related to his religious faith and activities. He threatened Hittle, saying that if he didn’t accept a demotion, “I’ll drag your name through the mud” and conduct an investigation that “will be embarrassing for you and your family.” Another supervisor disparagingly referred to Hittle and other Christians in the office as a “Christian Coalition” and “church clique.” 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 leadership seminar.

Seeking Justice under Federal Law

In March 2012, Chief Hittle filed a complaint of religious discrimination with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC), who gave him the right to sue the City. With the help of Alan Reinach and 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 religious coworkers to join him.

Hittle presented ample evidence of religious discrimination, including direct evidence that the city’s main reasons for firing Hittle related to his attendance at a “religious event.” The top “charges” from the City’s investigation all related to his faith and religious activities. Unfortunately, the district court disagreed and ruled for the city in March 2022 without allowing Hittle’s case to go to a jury.

First Liberty Protects the Rights of Religious Employees

On appeal, First Liberty and Aaron Streett and Elisabeth Butler from Baker Botts LLP are joining Chief Hittle’s legal team from the Church State Council. 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.

“It’s not every day that an employer makes clear that its top reasons for firing a religious employee were because of his religious faith and activities,” said Stephanie Taub, senior counsel at First Liberty Institute. “We are hopeful that the Ninth Circuit will recognize this direct evidence of discrimination and allow a jury to decide Hittle’s case. Religious employees shouldn’t have to hide their faith in order to serve their communities in the workplace.”

News Release
For Immediate Release: 9.1.22
Contact: Peyton Luke, media@firstliberty.org
Direct: 972-941-4453

 

Former California Fire Chief Files Appeal After Termination for Attending Leadership Conference Hosted By Church
Attorneys appeal to Ninth Circuit after city of Stockton illegally terminated fire chief due to religious discrimination

San Francisco, CA—First Liberty Institute, Baker Botts LLP, and the Church State Council asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to reverse a lower court decision that allowed the Stockton (CA) Fire Department to dismiss a fire chief, Ron Hittle, for attending a leadership conference held at a church.

You can read the brief here.

“Stockton city officials fired a public servant whose goal was to save lives because they were intolerant of his religious beliefs,” said Stephanie Taub, Senior Counsel at First Liberty. “The city fired Chief Hittle for attending a world-class leadership conference attended by millions simply because it was associated with religion. This is clear evidence of illegal religious discrimination.”

Alan Reinach of the Church State Council said of the appeal, “The lower court rubber stamped the city of Stockton’s decision to fire an exemplary fire chief who served the city of Stockton for 24 years, simply for being a Christian. The Ninth Circuit needs to fix the lower court’s dangerous ruling.”

Aaron Streett of Baker Botts said, “City of Stockton officials were completely intolerant of Chief Hittle’s religious beliefs.  Federal law protects the freedom of every American to live without fear of being fired simply because of their beliefs.”

After 24 years of service, the city of Stockton, California fired Fire Chief Ron Hittle because he attended a religious leadership conference while on the clock. Although the city requested Hittle attend a leadership training course, it later opened an investigation after he attended Willow Creek Church’s Global Leadership Summit, a world-class conference with speakers from a variety of religious and non-religious backgrounds, including Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric; Terri Kelly, president and CEO of W.L. Gore and Associates; Tony Dungy, winning coach of 2007 Super Bowl; and Zhao Xiao, Ph.D., leading Chinese economist. Over the years, speakers at the conference have also included Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook and former President Bill Clinton. The city listed as the primary reason for Hittle’s termination his attendance at a “religious event” while on duty.  Hittle sued, but in March of this year, a District court sided with the city.

Today’s brief argues, “The City’s disproportionate response to Hittle’s attendance at the Summit provides further evidence of discrimination.  The City listed attendance at the Summit as two of the four ‘most serious acts of misconduct’ that led to Hittle’s termination.  Yet there were steps short of termination that the City could have taken to remedy this alleged misconduct.  If the City believed it was impermissible for Hittle to attend the Summit while on duty, it could have requested that Hittle charge the attendance at the Summit to personal leave.  That is precisely the course the City pursued with [others], who attended with Hittle.  The City’s treatment of Hittle’s attendance at the Summit as misconduct meriting termination further reveals the City’s discriminatory animus.”

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About First Liberty Institute

First Liberty Institute is a non-profit public interest law firm and the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedom for all Americans. 

To arrange an interview, contact Peyton Luke at media@firstliberty.org or by calling 972-941-4453.

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