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Former California Fire Chief Files Appeal After Termination for Attending Leadership Conference Hosted By Church

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September 1, 2022

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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