Twelve years after he was terminated from his job for attending a megachurch leadership conference, former Californian fire chief Ron Hittle is still fighting for justice in the courts.
In 2006 he was appointed chief of the Stockton Fire Department where he had 24 years of service. In 2010, the Deputy City Manager told Chief Hittle he needed to improve his leadership skills and should attend a seminar. So he attended at his own expense Willow Creek Church’s Global Leadership Summit, a Christian-led seminar in Chicago. It’s described as a world-class conference with speakers from a variety of religious and non-religious backgrounds.
In 2011, the City of Stockton fired Chief Hittle because he received leadership training at the church event while on duty. Its attorneys accused him of violating regulations that prohibit employees from attending religiously themed events at taxpayers’ expense.
After a district court sided with the city over his termination, the fire chief’s lawyers from First Liberty Institute filed an appeal, but a Court of Appeals ruled last month that he was sacked for “legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons.”
First Liberty and another law firm and the Church State Council which fights for religious rights have filed a petition for an en banc rehearing by the Court for Appeals to review the three-judge panel’s recent decision. An en banc hearing allows a case to be heard before all the judges of a court rather than by a small panel.
“Firing Chief Hittle for attending a world-class leadership conference simply because it was associated with religion is clear evidence of illegal religious discrimination,” said Stephanie Taub, First Liberty Institute Senior Counsel.
First Liberty argues the appeals court made two major errors when it ruled against Chief Hittle: “It ignored the US 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.”
“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 US Supreme Court,” it asserted.
Photo: First Liberty Institute