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Former California Fire Chief Tells Federal Appeals Court that City’s Firing for Attending Leadership Conference Hosted By Church Violated Civil Rights

March 27, 2023

News Release
 For Immediate Release: 3.27.23
Contact: Peyton Luke,
Direct: 972-941-4454

Former California Fire Chief Tells Federal Appeals Court that City’s Firing for Attending Leadership Conference Hosted By Church Violated Civil Rights

Attorneys at Ninth Circuit argue city of Stockton illegally terminated fire chief because of religion

San Francisco, CA—Attorneys today urged 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. First Liberty Institute, Baker Botts LLP, and the Church State Council represent Hittle and argued that the city violated his civil rights.

Elisabeth Butler of Baker Botts, who argued the case today, said, “City of Stockton officials demonstrated blatant intolerance toward Chief Hittle’s religious beliefs.  Federal law protects the freedom of every American to live without fear of losing their jobs simply because of their beliefs.”

“Stockton officials fired Chief Hittle for attending a world-class leadership conference attended by hundreds of thousands of people simply because it was associated with religion,” added David Hacker, Vice President of Litigation at First Liberty. “This is clear evidence of illegal religious discrimination.”

Alan Reinach of the Church State Council said of the appeal, “Stockton officials treated Chief Hittle like he committed a crime for simply attending a leadership conference at a church.  But firing him was against the law.  The Ninth Circuit needs to fix the lower court’s dangerous ruling.”

After 24 years of service, the city of Stockton, California fired Fire Chief Ron Hittle because he attended a leadership conference hosted at a church during work hours. 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 2022, a district court sided with the city.


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 or by calling 972-941-4454.

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