First Liberty Asks Federal Court to Rehear Our Faith Under Fire Case

September 15, 2023
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by Jorge Gomez • 4 min read

This week, First Liberty—along with our friends at the Church State Council and the law firm Baker Botts LLP—filed a petition in our Faith Under Fire case involving Fire Chief Ron Hittle.

Last month, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court for Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued a decision that allowed the City of Stockton, California to fire our client because he attended a leadership conference held at a church. We’re asking for an en banc rehearing, which means a panel of 11 judges on that court would rehear the case.

“Firing Chief Hittle for attending a world-class leadership conference attended by thousands simply because it was associated with religion is clear evidence of illegal religious discrimination,” said Senior Counsel Stephanie Taub. “We urge the Ninth Circuit to grant rehearing en banc to fix the panel’s dangerous ruling.”

You’ll recall that Chief Hittle was wrongfully fired because he went to a conference at a church that featured both secular and religious speakers talking about leadership. After 24 years of service, the City opened a months-long investigation, belittled his beliefs, mistreated him and eventually fired him.

One of his superiors pressured him to accept a demotion. He also threatened Chief Hittle, 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 Chief Hittle and other Christians in the office as a “Christian Coalition” and “church clique.” Ironically, he went to the conference because his supervisors had encouraged him to attend leadership training.

Our petition argues that the City’s actions toward Chief Hittle violated federal law and the Constitution. We point out that the panel’s decision ignored two crucial U.S. Supreme Court decisions, namely our victories in our Faithful Carrier and Coach Kennedy cases.

We note that the panel excused the City’s wrongful and illegal actions because of its concern about “public perception” or the “perception of others.” But as the Supreme Court made crystal clear in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, religious discrimination cannot be justified by mere concerns about perception or endorsement of religion.

Additionally, in Groff v. DeJoy, the nation’s highest court held that “employee animosity to a particular religion, to religion in general, or to the very notion of accommodating religious practice cannot be considered ‘undue,’” and that “bias or hostility to a religious practice or a religious accommodation” does not provide a defense to an employer’s refusal to accommodate religion.

We conclude by explaining that a full rehearing is necessary because the legal issues not only affect Chief Hittle, but also millions of public employees across the country:

“For the 23.7 million Americans who work for the government, this case impacts whether they are free to participate in religious activities without punishment. If left uncorrected, the panel decision propounds the error that…public employees must still self-censor their religious activity for fear of reprisal.”

In this time of extreme cancel culture, Americans are being forced to choose between their faith and their livelihood. Employers continue to defy the law by punishing, demoting, harassing and firing workers over their religious beliefs. Winning this case could impact countless employees facing religious discrimination. The outcome could protect you, your children and grandchildren, and every person of faith in the workplace.

First Liberty and Chief Hittle need your continued support to prepare for the next round of litigation. Fighting these cases requires tremendous resources and we need to replenish our arsenal for the intense battles ahead.

Will you pitch in with a timely donation today? We’re counting on you to help us bring Chief Hittle’s case closer to victory.

Faith Under Fire | First Liberty Insititute

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