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Court of Appeal Revisits Case of Former Fire Chief Sacked for Attending Christian Conference

In a closely-watched case that has been ongoing for more than a decade, the US appeals court for the ninth circuit is now looking into the case of Ron Hittle, a former fire chief who has fired 12 years ago for attending a Christian leadership conference.

Hittle, who had been the fire chief and had served for 24 years, was terminated from his position in 2011 after he attended a religious event  which was organised by a Christian group.

On Monday 27 March, Hittle’s attorneys asked the federal court of San Francisco to reverse the court order that allowed Stockton, California Fire Department to sack him. First Liberty Institute, Baker Botts LLP, and the Church State Council are his representatives in the case. 

“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,” First Liberty Vice President of Litigation David Hacker further said. “This is clear evidence of illegal religious discrimination.”

Alan Reinach from the Church State Council revealed that Hittle was given the treatment of a criminal by the officials in the Stockton city for attending a leadership conference organised 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. 

Hittle’s attendance at the event was deemed to be a violation of the city’s policies on religious neutrality and he was subsequently fired. Hittle has been fighting his dismissal ever since, arguing that his attendance at the event did not interfere with his duties as fire chief and that his religious beliefs should not have been a factor in his termination.

The case has garnered significant attention from religious freedom advocates and legal experts alike, with many arguing that Hittle’s termination was a violation of his constitutional rights. 

According to a report by CBN, 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.”

In 2022, a federal judge ruled in favour of the city, but Hittle has continued to appeal the decision.

Now, more than a decade after his dismissal, Hittle’s case is once again making its way through the court system. The appeals court heard arguments from both sides in a recent hearing, with Hittle’s attorneys arguing that his termination was motivated by religious discrimination and that the city’s policies are overly broad and violate the First Amendment.

The city, for its part, argued that Hittle’s attendance at the event violated its policies on religious neutrality and that his termination was justified.

It remains to be seen what the appeals court will decide in this long-running case, but it is clear that the outcome will have significant implications for religious freedom and the limits of government policies on religious expression in the workplace.

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