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Faith under fire, California style

When a city tries to cancel its fire chief

The James R. Browning United States Courthouse building, a courthouse for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, Calif. Associated Press/Photo by Jeff Chiu

Faith under fire, California style
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Can the government punish religious employees simply because of the “perception of others”? The U.S. Supreme Court gave a resounding “no” in Kennedy v. Bremerton and Groff v. DeJoy, making clear that concerns about public perception do not justify religious discrimination. Yet the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit flouted those holdings when it ruled recently against Stockton, Calif., Fire Chief Ronald Hittle.

Earlier this month, attorneys for Hittle filed a petition for rehearing en banc, asking for a group of eleven judges to review the three-judge panel’s faulty decision.

After 24 faithful years of service, Chief Hittle was fired in 2011 by the City of Stockton, Calif., because he attended the Global Leadership Summit hosted by the Willow Creek Association. Ironically, he attended the summit because his supervisors had encouraged him to attend leadership training, and he and his coworkers gleaned valuable insights that they applied to their city service (and they paid for the tickets themselves). Speakers included CEO of General Electric Jack Welch and Super Bowl-winning coach Tony Dungy.

Yet after receiving an anonymous complaint that the summit was held in a church, Chief Hittle’s supervisors launched a months-long investigation, belittled his beliefs, mistreated him, and eventually fired him. One of his superiors pressured Chief Hittle to accept a demotion and threatened him, saying, “I’ll drag your name through the mud.” He admitted that Chief Hittle would “probably win a long, expensive legal battle,” but that his reputation would be irreparably harmed. Another supervisor disparagingly referred to Chief Hittle and other Christians as a “Christian Coalition” and “church clique.”

Firing Chief Hittle for attending a world-class leadership conference attended by thousands simply because it was associated with religion is clear evidence of illegal religious discrimination. Chief Hittle sued under federal and state civil rights laws, arguing that he was treated differently and fired because of his religion, and that the city retaliated against him for asserting his rights.

As the Supreme Court made crystal clear in Kennedy, religious discrimination cannot be justified by mere concerns about endorsement of religion.

After years of delay due to the city’s bankruptcy, the district court ruled against Chief Hittle, holding that his supervisors’ antagonistic comments were merely “stray remarks” that were not direct evidence of discrimination. Chief Hittle appealed to the 9th Circuit, and a three-judge panel affirmed the district court’s opinion in August 2023.

Remarkably, the panel doubled down, arguing that the summit—attended by tens of thousands of people over the years for its leadership principles and wide array of speakers—was “of no benefit” to the city because it was religious, and that the city’s actions were not hostile but had a “legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason” to fire Chief Hittle based on “constitutional concerns” about the “perception of others.”

The panel ignored two crucial U.S. Supreme Court decisions in Kennedy and Groff.

As the Supreme Court made crystal clear in Kennedy, religious discrimination cannot be justified by mere concerns about endorsement of religion. The court overruled the notorious Lemon Test and held that “in no world may a government entity’s concerns about phantom constitutional violations justify actual violations of an individual’s First Amendment rights.” Just as Coach Kennedy was free to kneel at the 50-yard line for a brief personal prayer, Chief Hittle was free to attend a leadership conference held at a church, and his employer broke the law when it fired him based on a few complaints.

That’s not the only Supreme Court case that the 9th Circuit ignored. Just last term, in Groff v. DeJoy, the justices unanimously held that “employee animosity to a particular religion” or “bias or hostility to a religious practice or a religious accommodation” does not provide an excuse for employers to refuse religious accommodations. The city’s actions and the hostile attacks of Chief Hittle’s supervisors were direct evidence of discrimination, and that violated Title VII. Instead of holding the Stockton accountable, the panel poured fuel on the fire when it found the summit “of no benefit” to the city simply because it had a religious element.

These legal issues not only affect Chief Hittle, but also the 23.7 million Americans employed by the government. If left uncorrected, the panel’s decision propounds the error that public employees must still self-censor their religious activity for fear of reprisal. Religious Americans must be free to live and work without fear of their careers going down in flames. The law requires nothing less.

Kayla Toney

Kayla Toney is associate counsel for First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit law firm dedicated to defending religious freedom for all.

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