Hypocrisy: City that Fired its Fire Chief Has a Police Chaplaincy Program

May 5, 2023
Stockton and Police Chaplains | First Liberty Institute

by Ethan Tong & Jorge Gomez • 5 min read

First Liberty’s client, Fire Chief Ron Hittle, served the city of Stockton, California for 20+ years. Despite his faithful service, he was wrongfully fired from his job because he attended a leadership seminar that took place at a church.

Ironically, Chief Hittle went to this conference at the behest of his supervisors, who encouraged him to attend leadership training.

He learned about the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit from a business magazine and decided to attend because it’s regarded as a top-tier program. In addition to prominent religious leaders, the seminar featured a stellar line up of speakers of various worldviews, including business leaders, coaches, authors and successful entrepreneurs.

Chief Hittle told his supervisors it was the best leadership training he’d ever attended and that it was highly beneficial for his career. But this wasn’t good enough. His superiors said attending a seminar associated with religion was unacceptable. They threatened to “drag his name through the mud” and conduct an investigation that “will be embarrassing for you and your family.” They also pressured him to accept a demotion, belittled his beliefs and mistreated him. Eventually, they fired him.

What happened to Chief Hittle was wrong. But the city’s actions are even more outrageous considering that faith and religion have impacted Stockton’s public servants in positive ways for many years. The city has a long history of encouraging employees to participate in religiously affiliated programs.

Stockton Police Chaplaincy

In 1997, Stockton established a police chaplaincy program, which invites people of faith and religious leaders to serve alongside officers. They are highly trained and provide officers with emotional and spiritual support when they need it. According to the city’s website, chaplains:

  • Ride with officers during their routine shifts
  • Sit alongside police department dispatchers
  • Speak at memorial services to offer encouragement
  • Pray frequently on behalf of victims and people distraught and grieving
  • Participate in activities and events with officers to help build trust with the community

Many Stockton officers have expressed how impactful the program has been:

“The Stockton Police Chaplaincy has been an unbelievable outlet for me…Though Chaplains are faith based individuals, that has never been ‘forced’ upon me. I do believe in GOD, and HE is an important part of my life but understanding that you can come in and talk to a Chaplain like a friend, who will give you the help that you seek and in the way you need is second to none.” – Officer J. Afanasiev

“I am extremely grateful to the SPD Chaplain for their willingness to be there when I need someone to listen to me, give me advice, or sit quietly while I need their presence.” – Sergeant J. Farthing

“The Chaplaincy program provided support to our family in difficult times when we were searching for spiritual direction. We can’t express enough our deep appreciation and gratitude.”​ – Ret. Officer R. Supulveda

“I love seeing our Chaplains around. Part of the reason I am so happy with working for Stockton PD is the incredible Chaplaincy program.” – Detective M. White

Bible Study for City Leaders

Stockton’s leaders have also benefitted from faith-based programs. Its current mayor and several members of his administration have participated in a Bible study sponsored by Capitol Ministries. In fact, Mayor Kevin Lincoln called it an “answer to prayer.”

“Prior to that I had been praying that God would send me the right people, the right resources that would help ground me and see the decisions I’m required to make through the lens of a biblical worldview,” Mayor Lincoln said.

He added: “The Capitol Ministries Bible studies are focused on governance and governing with a biblical worldview. Having that full perspective and understanding how to apply a biblical worldview to any situation is what I most appreciate.”

From the mayor’s office to the local police precinct, Stockton has been open and inclusive of religion in the past. Its public servants attest to the impact of faith and religious liberty in their community.

Chief Hittle, however, was not treated fairly and equally. Instead, the city brazenly discriminated against him. Given its history of collaboration with religious groups, Stockton’s actions toward our client are hypocritical, to say the least.

Of course, its actions aren’t just ludicrous—they’re illegal. Federal law makes clear that employers cannot discharge or take adverse action against employees on the basis of their religion.

That’s the case we made last month before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Our attorneys argued there is ample evidence of religious discrimination and asked the Court to allow the case to proceed to a trial before a jury, which could finally right the wrongs done to Chief Hittle.

Please continue praying as we wait for the Ninth Circuit to issue its decision. This is a crucial case that could affect you and every religious person at work.

Faith Under Fire | First Liberty Insititute

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