A California fire chief who claims he was terminated from his job after attending a megachurch leadership conference has filed an appeal after a federal court ruled earlier this year that he was rightfully let go.
The First Liberty Institute filed the appeal with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of Ron Hittle, who was dismissed as fire chief of the Stockton Fire Department over a decade ago.
The appeal, filed Aug. 31, comes after District Court Judge Troy Nunley, an Obama appointee, sided with the city in March.
"The city of Stockton, California ... ordered Fire Chief Ronald Hittle to attend a leadership training and then fired him because he attended a religious, rather than secular, leadership conference while on the clock," the brief reads.
"It is undisputed that the City lists his attendance at this conference as a reason for his termination."
Hittle and his attorneys claim that the court should grant summary judgment based on claims the city violated his rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act "because religion was a motivating factor in his termination."
In an interview with The Christian Post, First Liberty Senior Counsel Stephanie Taub said that the city's decision to fire Hittle demonstrated "religious intolerance and discrimination."
Hittle served the department for over 20 years, eventually becoming the fire chief in 2005. In July 2010, Deputy City Manager Laurie Montes instructed Hittle to attend leadership training.
The former fire chief learned that a former pastor he met while serving on a church school board, George Liepart, had four tickets to the Global Leadership Summit, held at the Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois and broadcast to sites around the world. Hittle attended the conference with three other staff members.
According to Taub, the conference doesn't only feature speakers representing Christian values but also figures such as former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, as well as former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
The attorney maintains that Hittle was following instructions by attending leadership training.
"But it didn't matter that it was a quality leadership conference," Taub told CP. "If they had concerns, maybe they could have talked about it with him or maybe charged it to PTO, like they did for a few other members of the fire department. But instead, they just fired him."
In May 2010, the fire department received an anonymous letter calling for Hittle's termination for being a "religious fanatic." Montes allegedly accused the former fire chief of being part of a "Christian Coalition." The brief claims she used a "pejorative tone" and said that Hittle should refrain from being part of such activities as the fire chief. Other decision-makers involved in the termination process also reportedly made disparaging remarks about Hittle's faith.
The city issued a notice of investigation to Hittle in November 2010, listing five issues, such as the effectiveness of his leadership and the use of city time and vehicle to attend a religious event, according to the district court's initial decision.
Other issues included the endorsement of a private business, potentially conflicting loyalties and Hittle's compliance with directions concerning the budget.
Hittle was placed on administrative leave in March 2011. In August 2011, an additional investigation sustained several allegations against the plaintiff. The report listed the inappropriate use of city time and a city vehicle to attend a religious event as one of the "most serious acts of misconduct."
Hittle was accused of favoring employees who attended the event by granting time off for "inappropriate attendance" at the event and a financial conflict of interest with the pastor who had bought the tickets.
The report claimed that Hittle failed to disclose to the city manager his financial relationship with the President of the Firefighters Local 456, which "occurred before, during, and after the Union President was the subject of an Internal Affairs investigation by the department into potential misconduct."
A final notice of separation was sent to Hittle in September 2011, notifying him that he would be removed from his position as fire chief effective October 2011.
After reviewing the case, the district court ruled that the city had grounds to dismiss the plaintiff due to his "multiple acts of misconduct."
"[T]here is overwhelming evidence that Defendants had legitimate, nonretaliatory reasons for Plaintiff's termination," the March ruling states. "In the context of Plaintiff's association with Liepart, the notice of removal indicates Plaintiff failed to disclose his personal and business relationship with Liepart, who provided consulting services to the City."
Taub told CP that an appeals process could take a few months.