California pastor removed from city advisory board
Lawsuit alleges mayor vetoed him over his Christian convictions
When the San Diego City Council asked Dennis Hodges to join the San Diego Citizens Advisory Board on Police/Community Relations in 2017, he said he felt honored. Hodges had worked for nearly 30 years in the California Department of Corrections to help keep crime off the streets, also serving as a chaplain with the San Diego Police Department. His new role on the advisory board allowed him to serve as a bridge between law enforcement and the community.
After six years of service, Hodges expected to be reappointed this past August. But instead, Mayor Todd Gloria vetoed Hodges’ reappointment. Hodges says the mayor made the decision due to Hodges’ religious beliefs.
Last week, Hodges filed a lawsuit against Gloria, alleging that the mayor violated Hodges’ First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion and free speech by removing him from the role.
According to the lawsuit, the mayor’s reasoning for removing Hodges stemmed from a 2021 incident with another board, the San Diego County Human Relations Commission, which Hodges had joined that year.
About seven months after he joined, Hodges abstained from voting on an agenda item that expressed support for the transgender community in the county. Hodges, a founding pastor of a church in the nearby city of Lemon Grove, said he abstained because the vote conflicted with his religious beliefs. He didn’t do it to be hateful towards others—he believes Christians are called to love all people—but he upholds the Bible’s view on sexuality and gender, he said.
After Hodges’ abstention, several fellow commission members petitioned to remove him from the board. In a letter, the commission chair claimed Hodges had made “discriminatory and harassing remarks” toward people who identify as LGBTQ.
When the commissioners failed to get the votes to remove him from the board, they then switched tactics and instead encouraged the mayor to veto Hodges’ reappointment to the advisory board, according to the lawsuit.
Hodges said it felt like his “character was being assassinated” when the commissioners’ efforts were successful and he was removed. “It felt hurtful. It felt surprising,” he said, adding that he had never had a problem with either board before.
The lawsuit states that Gloria sent a memo vetoing the appointment, explaining that because Hodges “has made repeated concerning public comments about LGBTQ people—specifically, the transgender community,” he should not serve on a board “promoting a positive relationship between the police department and the community it serves.”
The mayor’s office did not respond to WORLD’s questions about the matter in time for publication.
Gloria had no legal grounds to remove Hodges from the board, said Julianne Fleischer, attorney at Advocates for Faith and Freedom, which represents Hodges. The mayor vetoed him based on his religious beliefs, not a lack of qualifications, she said, which violates Hodges’ constitutional rights to free speech and discriminates against his religious beliefs.
“No public servant can be removed from their position for comments they’ve made related to their religious beliefs or actions that they’ve taken because of their religious beliefs,” she said. “[Hodges] has been a dedicated public servant for the majority of his life, for his entire career. The fact that a mayor could incorrectly use and wield government authority to remove someone like Pastor Hodges is just unacceptable.”
Hodges’ lawsuit is part of a rising number of cases where Christian public officials are “being silenced by the louder majority and are being targeted for their religious beliefs,” Fleischer said. Cases against public officials’ beliefs are increasing in California and across the U.S., she said. Advocates for Faith and Freedom is also representing Jessica Tapia, a public school teacher who was fired in January after she refused to comply with gender-affirming policies in her school district because of her Christian convictions.
“What has happened to me can happen to anybody,” Tapia said in a news release. “My story is not just mine. It is the story of every teacher of moral and faith. It is the story of every parent whose first priority is protecting their children.”
In Oregon, two teachers were fired in 2021 after expressing their beliefs about gender on social media. That case remains on appeal, with a ruling not expected until next year.
Despite the increase in cases like this, Fleischer said the U.S. Supreme Court continues to be clear that it protects free speech and religious rights.
“No person has to abandon their faith when they step into the public sector,” she said. “Both the United States Constitution and Supreme Court precedent reflect that. So with a lot of these cases, even if they lose at the lower courts we are seeing a lot of victories at the Supreme Court.”
Fleischer said she hopes Hodges’ lawsuit will be resolved as quickly as possible. However, the city has up to three months to respond to the suit.
While Hodges still serves on the commission board, the suit asks the court to reinstate him to the advisory board and issue a declaratory judgment that the mayor’s actions were unconstitutional. Fleischer and Hodges also want to protect other public officials from facing similar discrimination.
Ultimately, Hodges said he hopes that “justice will be done.”
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