by Jorge Gomez • 6 min read
First Liberty—along with attorneys Aaron Streett and Elisabeth Butler from Baker Botts LLP and the Church State Council—are defending Fire Chief Ron Hittle, a devout Christian who sought to live out his faith in the workplace. After 24 years of service, the city of Stockton, California fired him for attending a leadership conference that took place at a church.
This week, our legal teams filed a brief on his behalf at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. We argued that the city’s actions are unlawful under the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects against religious discrimination and harassment in the workplace. This law makes clear that businesses cannot discharge or take adverse action against employees on the basis of their religion.
Chief Hittle’s case adds to a growing list of major legal battles First Liberty is fighting to protect religious employees. Religious discrimination in the workplace is a major issue, especially in this time of extreme “woke” cancel culture when corporations continue to defy the law by punishing, demoting, harassing and firing workers over their beliefs and convictions. The outcome of these cases will affect every employed person of faith and their protection under the law.
Under Fire for His Faith
Ron Hittle served his community as a firefighter for more than two decades. When he became Fire Chief in 2006, he did his best to improve the department and lead his staff effectively.
More than a decade ago, the Deputy City Manager asked Chief Hittle to attend leadership training. Chief Hittle learned about the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit from a 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 backgrounds including his own Christian worldview. Chief Hittle invited 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 paid for the two-day seminar with their own funds.
But the same supervisor who asked Chief Hittle to attend leadership training told him it was unacceptable that he attended a Christian-affiliated seminar.
Chief 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 five 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 attending a Christian-affiliated leadership seminar.
Chief Hittle filed a complaint of religious discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which in turn 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 claiming religious discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
His attorneys presented ample evidence of religious discrimination, including direct evidence that the city’s main reasons for firing Chief Hittle related to his attendance at a religious event. The district court, however, disagreed and ruled for the city in March 2022 without allowing the case to go to a jury.
The city’s unlawful behavior could not be any clearer. It admitted that its top reasons for firing a religious employee were because of his religious faith and activities. This is illegal under federal civil rights law. With our recent appeal, we’re hopeful the Ninth Circuit will recognize this direct evidence of discrimination, allow a jury to decide Chief Hittle’s case and bring him one step closer to receiving the justice he deserves.
Religious People Need Not Apply?
Whether it’s in the boardroom of corporate America or the woke ideologies that have infiltrated many of our government agencies, there’s growing intolerance and hostility toward religion. Because of this toxic cancel culture, religious Americans are often reduced to second-class citizens, as just about any other right trumps religious liberty.
With Chief Hittle’s case, we’re once again witnessing the government sending a message that religious people need not apply. That’s wrong. Forcing Americans to choose between their religious belief and their livelihood is not just outrageous. It’s illegal. Our nation’s laws protect people of faith so they should not have to face that difficult choice.
Together, we must protect the rights of Americans like Chief Hittle to practice their faith without fear of losing their job. The outcome of his case could impact people of faith across the country and their protection in the workplace, whether that is you or your children and grandchildren. Join First Liberty in the fight to deliver more critical victories for religious freedom at work.