Firefighter was terminated for religious content of workplace emails

 

By Kelly Larios –

The Washington Supreme Court ruled last week that a Spokane fire captain met his burden of proving that his free speech rights were restricted in violation of the First Amendment. The court ruled that the burden now shifts to the employer to show that it would have taken the same action even if he had not engaged in the protected religious conduct.

Captain Jonathan Sprague of the Spokane Valley Fire Department (SVFD) was terminated in 2012 after being admonished several times by his superiors for sending out invitations and religious-themed messages via the fire department’s online forums and email system. On January 25, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled in favor of Capt. Sprague, determining that the SVFD terminated Sprague for expressing his Christian beliefs.

Sprague, who had been employed by the SVFD from 1995-2012, had been highly praised by the department as being an “excellent firefighter.” Attorney Brad Dacus, President of the Pacific Justice Institute (PJI), which funded the case, stated that the former captain had an exemplary service record. Before his termination, Sprague had never received any complaints from his human resources department, and he maintained excellent rapport with his colleagues. His termination, Dacus asserted, was due to religious hostility.

When Sprague began the Spokane County Christian Firefighter Fellowship in 2010, he decided to use the two methods of department-sponsored communication— an email system and an electronic bulletin board. The department policies on communication via these forums were rather permissive; while the SVFD policy requested employees not use their departmental email for personal affairs, there was no specific policy regarding posts on the bulletin board.

Sprague created an email list of 46 SVFD individuals whom he believed would be interested in the Fellowship and began to send religious-themed emails via his work account. He also made posts about the Fellowship’s meetings and newsletters on the bulletin board, often accompanying these with a Biblical quote. Sprague’s emails examined topics that were also the frequent center of focus of the SVFD’s employee assistance program (EAP). The department sent out newsletters, administered by the department’s health insurer, which discussed issues such as depression, suicide, parenting, and team building. Sprague’s emails linked these concerns to Fellowship social activities and incorporating Biblical teachings could benefit those dealing with stressful situations.

The SVFD stated that the EAP newsletters were not meant to “invite comment or discussion from SVFD employees,” but also stated that employees could respond if they had pertinent information regarding resources that other firefighters could use, which included information about meeting times. Sprague, however, alleged that the emails were open for discussion, and argued that his religious-themed emails fulfilled the latter requirements.

Sprague’s emails concerned his superiors, who took progressive discipline against his use of departmental emails. A letter sent to Sprague by a member of the Spokane Valley Board of Fire Commissioners asked Sprague to use his personal email address instead and to send the emails only to personal email accounts. When Sprague refused to comply, the SVFD sent a letter discussing the nature of his postings, citing them as “inappropriate and prohibited behavior,” specifically opposing Sprague’s use of religious symbols and scriptural quotations.

Valerie Biladeau, who represented SVFD, stated that Sprague was told that the while the content of his emails was okay, he was asked to remove the scriptural quotations. Biladeau argued that the censure was due to SVFD’s attempts to be “content neutral,” as the department is a state organization. Despite repeated warnings, Sprague continued to disregard his superior’s requests, posting on the bulletin board and sending emails via the SVFD’s email system. Sprague was terminated in 2012 on the recommendation of the fire chief and the SVFD Board of Commissioners.

Sprague initially appealed his termination to the Spokane County Civil Service Commission, stating that the SVFD had violated his right to free speech and exercise of religion. The Commission sided with the fire department. Sprague’s subsequent actions with the Spokane County Superior Court and his appeal to the Division Three of the Court of Appeals claimed that both his First Amendment rights and Fourteenth Amendment rights had been violated, in addition to accusing SVFD of violating his Title VII employee’s rights. Both courts also sided with the SVFD’s assertion that their policies applied equally to all employees in “prohibiting expression of religious views.”

Sprague petitioned the Supreme Court of Washington State to review the trial court’s decision. The decision, given on January 25th, concluded that SVFD engaged in viewpoint discrimination. The court argued that because Sprague’s emails contained similar themes to the EAP newsletters, excluding Sprague’s viewpoint did not permit equal access to the forum. The court also found that because Sprague sent the emails as a private citizen on matters of public concern, his right to free speech was violated.

Now that Sprague’s right to free speech has been reaffirmed by the court, Dacus is optimistic about the future of the case. He stated that he believes the courts will provide a “proper remedy, to make things right where they can.” Dacus suggests that this decision is an important reminder of the right of Christians and others to speak freely on matters of faith.

In 2013, the Washington Supreme Court ruled in Kumar v. Gate Gourmet that Washington's Law Against Discrimination (the WLAD) requires that employers must make reasonable accommodations for their employees' religious practices when several employees, including Hindus, Muslims, and Orthodox Christians, filed suit claiming that the airline meal service violated their religious beliefs by putting meat in employee lunches labeled "vegetarian" and using pork in meat dishes without disclosing the contents.

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Case:  Sprague v. Spokane, Washington Supreme Court (1/25/18)

 

Kelly Larios is a History major studying at La Sierra University. She hopes to become an expert in international law, expanding human rights in third-world countries.

 

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