They’re coming for you next: Ron Hittle, who had served as a firefighter in Stockton, California, for more than two decades and was for five years its fire chief, was fired in 2010 because he had had the nerve to attend a leadership conference that happened to be affiliated with the Christian religion.
More than a decade ago, the Deputy City Manager asked Chief Hittle to attend leadership training. Chief Hittle learned about the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit from a business magazine, and he decided to attend because it was a renowned leadership seminar that featured a “pop up business school” with stellar speakers from various backgrounds including his own Christian worldview. Chief Hittle invited three of his staff members who shared his Christian faith to join him, and he put his attendance on the public city calendar so his supervisors would be aware. The firefighters paid for the two-day seminar with their own funds.
But the same supervisor who asked Chief Hittle to attend leadership training told him it was unacceptable that he attended a Christian-affiliated seminar.
Chief Hittle explained that the Summit was the best leadership training he had ever attended and that it was highly beneficial for his career. In November 2010, the City Manager confronted Hittle with a list of 10 “charges,” and the first five were all related to his religious faith and activities. He threatened Hittle, saying that if he didn’t accept a demotion, “I’ll drag your name through the mud” and conduct an investigation that “will be embarrassing for you and your family.” Another supervisor disparagingly referred to Hittle and other Christians in the office as a “Christian Coalition” and “church clique.” After several months of investigating, the city fired Hittle in October 2011, making clear in his termination letter that he was being fired for attending a Christian-affiliated leadership seminar.
You can read the complaint here [pdf]. It expressly names the city of Stockton, its city manager and deputy city manager at the time, Robert Deis and Laurie Montes respectively.
Hittle filed a complaint with the EEOC and a federal lawsuit, both claiming of religious discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as California law. This case has dragged on in the courts for years. In March 2022 a federal Ninth District court summarily dismissed [pdf] his suit, and he is now appealing [pdf].
It is really interesting to read the court’s decision to dismiss. It twists itself into pretzels to try to make believe Hittle was not fired because of his religion. First, it somehow decided that Montes’ ugly remarks about Hittle’s religion were not “egregious and bigoted insult[s] . . . that constitute strong evidence of discriminatory animus.” Next it concluded that Hittle had not shown “he had a bona fide religious belief, the practice of which conflicts with an employment duty.”
The contradictions here are astonishing. Hittle can’t claim discrimination because he really doesn’t have any strong religious beliefs. Nor can he claim discrimination when those so-called “non-existent” beliefs are used to fire him, and to do so in an insulting manner.
While the city officials also claimed that Hittle’s social contacts with one labor official and others caused a conflict of interest, those social contacts apparently were the result of similar Christian interests. Furthermore, no evidence of actual misconduct due to those associations was ever presented. Once again, it appears it was Hittle’s religion that made these officials want to get rid of him. Deis’s reaction to Hittle’s religious beliefs at their first meeting is instructive:
On or about July 9, 2010, Hittle had an introductory meeting with Bob Deis, the newly appointed City Manager for the City of Stockton. Deis asked Hittle for his personal background, whereupon Hittle remarked that he was a devout Christian and that his religion instilled in him strong values of honesty and integrity. Deis cut Hittle off and changed the subject.
It is unclear whether Hittle can win on appeal. And even if he does, his career as fire chief in Stockton is long gone, by more than a decade. He might win money, but doing what he apparently loved has been denied him, merely because he was a Christian.