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Stockton Fire Chief Fired for Attending Christian Conference Fights Decade-Long 'Religious Discrimination' Battle

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Attorneys for a fire chief who lost his job after attending a leadership conference at a church are fighting in court for his religious rights.

First Liberty Institute, Baker Botts LLP, and the Church State Council are representing former Stockton, California Fire Chief Ron Hittle. They have asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to reverse a lower court decision that allowed the Stockton Fire Department to terminate Hittle.

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 attended a religious leadership conference while on duty, and his attorneys say that's discrimination. 

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

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.  The summit is 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 this year, 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. "The city fired Chief Hittle for attending a world-class leadership conference attended by millions simply because it was associated with religion. This is clear evidence of illegal religious discrimination."

Alan Reinach of the Church State Council said of the appeal, "The lower court rubber-stamped the city of Stockton's decision to fire an exemplary fire chief who served the city of Stockton for 24 years, simply for being a Christian. The Ninth Circuit needs to fix the lower court's dangerous ruling."

Aaron Streett of Baker Botts said, "City of Stockton officials were completely intolerant of Chief Hittle's religious beliefs. Federal law protects the freedom of every American to live without fear of being fired simply because of their beliefs."

Hittle's attorneys' 57-page brief filed with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday 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."

CBN News has reached out to the Stockton City Manager's Office for comment.  We'll post their response here if we hear back. 

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About The Author

Steve Warren is a senior multimedia producer for CBN News. Warren has worked in the news departments of television stations and cable networks across the country. In addition, he also worked as a producer-director in television production and on-air promotion. A Civil War historian, he authored the book The Second Battle of Cabin Creek: Brilliant Victory. It was the companion book to the television documentary titled Last Raid at Cabin Creek currently streaming on Amazon Prime. He holds an M.A. in Journalism from the University of Oklahoma and a B.A. in Communication from the University of