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 attended the two-day seminar at no cost to the city.

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 joined Chief Hittle’s legal team from the Church State Council. Our team presented 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.

In August 2023, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit sided with the City of Stockton. In September First Liberty and the other members of Hittle’s legal team asked the Ninth Circuit to rehear the case en banc, with a larger panel of Ninth Circuit judges.

“Firing Chief Hittle for attending a world-class leadership conference attended by thousands simply because it was associated with religion is clear evidence of illegal religious discrimination,” said Stephanie Taub, Senior Counsel at First Liberty. “We urge the Ninth Circuit to grant rehearing en banc to fix the panel’s dangerous ruling.”

In May 2024, a divided Ninth Circuit declined to rehear the case en banc (the full panel of judges). Our team is planning to file a petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court, asking them to ensure that the proper standards apply to cases of employment discrimination, and that employers are not given a free pass to treat religious employees as second-class citizens.

News Release
For Immediate Release: 9.11.23
Contact: John Manning,
Direct: 972-941-4453

Fire Chief Terminated for Attending Leadership Conference Hosted By Church Appeals Ninth Circuit Decision
Fire Chief Ron Hittle’s attorneys submit request for en banc hearing to correct flawed legal standard involving religious discrimination.

San Francisco, CAFirst Liberty Institute, Baker Botts LLP, and the Church State Council filed a petition for an en banc rehearing by the U.S. Court for Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to review a three-judge panel 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 petition here.

“Firing Chief Hittle for attending a world-class leadership conference attended by thousands simply because it was associated with religion is clear evidence of illegal religious discrimination,” said Stephanie Taub, Senior Counsel at First Liberty. “We urge the Ninth Circuit to grant rehearing en banc to fix the panel’s dangerous ruling.”

The City of Stockton, California terminated Fire Chief Ron Hittle after 24 years of service, because he attended a religious leadership conference while on the clock. Although the City asked Chief Hittle to attend a leadership training course, it opened an investigation after he attended Willow Creek Community 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, and Super Bowl winning coach Tony Dungy. Prior speakers include Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook and former President Bill Clinton. The City listed as the Chief Hittle’s attendance at a “religious event” while on duty as the primary reason for his termination.

The court made two major errors when it ruled against Chief Hittle. It ignored Supreme Court precedent in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District when it allowed the “perception of others” to justify its religious discrimination against Chief Hittle. The court also held religious claims to a more difficult legal standard than other kinds of discrimination. Chief Hittle’s legal team is seeking review of this decision, to safeguard the religious freedoms of all Americans in the workplace.

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About First Liberty Institute

First Liberty Institute is the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedom for all Americans.

To arrange an interview, contact John Manning at or by calling 972-941-4453.

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