March 27: Federal Appeals Court Argument for Fire Chief Ron Hittle

March 3, 2023
Faith Under Fire | First Liberty Insititute

by Jorge Gomez • 6 min read

In just a few short weeks, on March 27, Frist Liberty will be arguing Fire Chief Ron Hittle’s case in federal appeals court.

Ron was wrongfully fired from his job because he went to a leadership conference that was held at a church. The city of Stockton, California terminated him for attending this world-class conference, even though his supervisors encouraged him to attend leadership training.

Last fall, First Liberty—along with law firm Baker Botts LLP and the Church State Council—filed a brief on his behalf at the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. We argued that the city’s actions violated federal law, which protects against religious discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

This case adds to a growing list of major legal battles First Liberty is fighting to protect religious employees. In this time of extreme cancel culture, employers continue to defy the law by punishing, demoting, harassing and firing workers over their beliefs and convictions.

The workplace is quickly surfacing as a new battlefront in which we must protect religious liberty. Winning Ron’s case wouldn’t just bring relief to countless first responders and public employees facing discrimination because of their religious beliefs. It could also impact every employed person of faith and their protection under the law.

20-Year Career Goes Up in Flames

Ron Hittle served as a firefighter for more than 20 years. When he became Fire Chief in 2006, he worked diligently to improve the department and lead his staff effectively.

When the Deputy City Manager asked him to hone his leadership skills, Ron chose the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit, a stellar leadership seminar featuring a diverse line up of speakers, business leaders, coaches, authors and successful entrepreneurs. Three of his staff members joined him, and he put his attendance on the public city calendar so his supervisors would be aware. The firefighters’ tickets were privately paid for, saving the city money.

After the seminar, Ron told his superiors it was the best leadership training he had ever attended and that it was highly beneficial for his career. How did they respond? By telling him attending a “Christian seminar” was unacceptable. One of his bosses—the same one who asked attend leadership training—confronted Ron with a list of 10 “charges,” the first five which were all related to his religion.

Ironically, the Stockton Fire Department lists “compassion” and “importance of our members” as some of its core values. It even says it will “respect and honor the traditions of our organization, community, and profession.” But these core values apparently did not apply to Ron and his religious beliefs.

Instead of being treated fairly and respectfully, Ron’s employer burned him for his beliefs. The city discriminated against him and mistreated him. One of his superiors pressured him to accept a demotion. He also threatened Ron, saying, “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 Ron and other Christians in the office as a “Christian Coalition” and “church clique.”

His superiors opened a months-long investigation, belittled his beliefs and eventually fired him.

Religious Workers Should be Treated the Same as Everyone Else

It’s not every day that an employer makes clear it fired an employee because of his religious faith and activities. But that’s exactly what happened with Ron. The city admitted his attendance at the “religious event” and allowing others to attend were the primary reasons for his termination, listing them first.

This isn’t just outrageous and wrong, but as our legal experts have explained, this is illegal. The federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes clear that employers cannot discharge or take adverse action against employees on the basis of their religion.

Firefighters are brave public servants who work around the clock, often putting their health and lives on the line to keep us safe. It’s difficult enough to find people willing to make that sacrifice. We should be encouraging qualified and experienced people like Ron to continue serving as first responders, not purging them just because of their faith. Forcing them to choose between their faith and their livelihood makes a mockery of our laws and contradicts our country’s historic commitment to religious liberty.

On March 27, First Liberty and Baker Botts will present Ron’s case at the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing there is ample evidence of religious discrimination. 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.

Our argument is only a few weeks away. Ron is counting on us, and First Liberty needs your support to deliver a victory. This is a crucial case that could affect you and every religious person at work, including your children and grandchildren. Please give now and join First Liberty in this fight.

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