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Above: Former Stockton, California Fire Chief Ron Hittle. (Photo courtesy: First Liberty Institute)

Appeals Court Looks Into Case of Fire Chief Who Was Fired for Attending Christian Event

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The US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is now considering a major religious discrimination case involving a fire chief who was dismissed after attending a leadership conference held at a church. 

On Monday, attorneys for Chief Ron Hittle asked the San Francisco-based federal court to reverse a lower court decision that allowed the Stockton, California Fire Department to fire him. 

Hittle's legal battle with the city has been dragging on for almost 12 years. 

slider img 2First Liberty Institute, Baker Botts LLP, and the Church State Council are representing Hittle, arguing that the city violated his civil rights.

"City of Stockton officials demonstrated blatant intolerance toward Chief Hittle's religious beliefs," Elisabeth Butler of Baker Botts said. "Federal law protects the freedom of every American to live without fear of losing their jobs simply because of their beliefs."

"Stockton officials fired Chief Hittle for attending a world-class leadership conference attended by hundreds of thousands of people simply because it was associated with religion," added First Liberty Vice President of Litigation David Hacker. "This is clear evidence of illegal religious discrimination."

Alan Reinach of the Church State Council noted Hittle was treated like a criminal by city officials for going to a leadership conference held on a church campus.  

"Stockton officials treated Chief Hittle like he committed a crime for simply attending a leadership conference at a church. But firing him was against the law. The Ninth Circuit needs to fix the lower court's dangerous ruling," Reinach said. 

As CBN News reported last September, Hittle was named chief of the Stockton Fire Department in 2006 and had 24 years of service to the department. The City of Stockton fired Hittle in September of 2011 because he received leadership training at the church event while on duty, and his attorneys say that's discrimination. 

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According to The Stockton Record, Deputy City Manager Laurie Montes had told Hittle he needed to improve his leadership skills and should attend a seminar. 

The city later opened an investigation after he attended the Willow Creek Church's Global Leadership Summit, a Christian-led seminar in South Barrington, Illinois.  It's described as 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 the 2007 Super Bowl; and Zhao Xiao, Ph.D., a leading Chinese economist.

Hittle paid out of his own pocket to attend the conference. However, city attorneys accused him of violating regulations that prohibit employees from attending religiously themed events while on the taxpayers' dime, The Record reported. 

The city listed as the primary reason for Hittle's termination his attendance at a "religious event" while on duty. Hittle sued in 2012, but in March of 2022, a District court sided with the city.

"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.

Hittle's attorneys' 57-page brief filed with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in September 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," the brief continued. "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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