Fire Chief Terminated for Attending Christian Event Takes Case to Next Level in 12-Year Battle
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A non-profit legal group says they will appeal a court's decision to side with a California fire department that terminated their chief for attending a leadership conference held at a church.
First Liberty Institute filed a petition for an en banc rehearing by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in the case of Chief Ronald Hittle.
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 a church event while on duty, but his attorneys say that's religious discrimination.
In 2010, the Deputy City Manager 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; Tony Dungy, winning coach of the 2007 Super Bowl; and Zhao Xiao, Ph.D., a leading Chinese economist.
Hittle paid out of 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 Stockton 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 2022, a District court sided with the city.
First Liberty filed an appeal, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in August that the City of Stockton fired Hittle for legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons.
First Liberty Institute, Baker Botts LLP, and the Church State Council told CBN News in a joint statement that they have now filed a petition for an en banc rehearing by the U.S. Court for Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to review the three-judge panel's recent decision.
An en banc hearing or session allows a case to be heard before all the judges of a court rather than by a small panel.
Hittle's legal battle with the city has been dragging on for almost 12 years.
"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 Stephanie Taub, Senior Counsel at First Liberty. "We urge the Ninth Circuit to grant rehearing en banc to fix the panel's dangerous ruling."
First Liberty says the court made two major errors when it ruled against Chief Hittle.
"It ignored Supreme Court precedent in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District when it allowed the 'perception of others' to justify its religious discrimination against Chief Hittle. The court also held religious claims to a more difficult legal standard than other kinds of discrimination," reads a statement from the group.
First Liberty adds that they will take Stockton's case to the Supreme Court, if necessary.
"Religious employees shouldn't have to hide their faith in order to serve their communities in the workplace. It's appalling that Stockton city officials fired a public servant whose goal was to save lives simply because they were intolerant of Chief Hittle's religious beliefs. We will continue to fight on behalf of Chief Hittle, even if it means going to the U.S. Supreme Court."
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