Washington Captain Sues Over Termination for Religious Emails

The Spokane Valley captain fired in 2012 for refusing to stop sending religious emails over the fire department email system has filed suit claiming that his discipline and ultimate termination is the result of religious discrimination.

Captain Jon Sprague started the Spokane County Christian Firefighter Fellowship group in 2010. He began sending out emails announcing meetings and events and posting notices on the department’s electronic bulletin board. In January 2012 he was cited for improper use of the department’s email system. A letter of counseling for the same offense followed in April. In May when he persisted he received a letter of reprimand.

When the conduct continued into July, Captain Sprague was given a two-day suspension, prompting him to file a complaint with the EEOC alleging violation of the 1st Amendment and religious discrimination.

Despite what appears to have been a text-book implementation of progressive discipline, Captain Sprague refused to stop sending religious emails over the department’s system. In October, 2012, the Spokane Valley Board of Fire Commissioners voted unanimously to terminate Sprague. His appeal to the department’s civil service commission was denied last year.

Captain Sprague has now filed suit in Spokane County Superior Court. According to The Spokesman Review, the suit names the department and former fire chief Mike Thompson, alleging a violation of his “First Amendment rights and his civil rights. He’s asking for reinstatement, lost wages, punitive damages and a declaration that the department’s policies violate the civil rights of its employees.”

Here is more on the story.

I reached out to Captain Sprague to obtain a copy of the complaint and here it is: Sprague v SVFD

He was also kind enough – and courageous enough – to offer the following commentary – which I assured him I would not use out of context. For that reason it is provided in its entirety:

My dentist once told me that I didn’t have to floss all of my teeth – only the ones I wanted to keep. The same can be said about defending your rights. How far will you go to keep the ones you currently enjoy or may want to enjoy in the future?

Personally, I find it very tragic that the defense of basic rights has come to this point. Any injury to a fire department is an injury to those it serves. The loss of morale, trust, productivity, and, of course, substantial sums of money that could be better spent on personnel and equipment is generally far more than anyone considered at the outset. The plaintiffs suffer similar losses, but usually much deeper, having no taxpayer support to maintain them.  Indeed, the price is steep, yet, the ramifications of looking the other way are simply too great.

This case has turned relatively few heads, because most citizens, firefighters included, do not engage in such issues in the daily course of their lives, nor would they want to if presented with such a choice. The overwhelming majority prefer to see it in simplistic terms, and ascribe to it a certain air of religious zealotry, because that is all too often the case.  Yet, it would be improper to narrow this issue into one of merely religious freedom. Title VII is much broader than that, and the First Amendment is a veritable ocean. If our thoughts can be encompassed by two visible shores, our thoughts are too small and the vast ocean of free expression will soon become a stagnant pond, at least in the cloister of the firehouse.

When one of our deputy chiefs once offhandedly remarked, “We want to control what people think about when they’re at work”, hardly anyone envisioned actions such as these, and yet here we are today. Fire administrators around the country are watching closely, as are many IAFF locals, but this issue extends far outside the station walls. There is a well-established body of public sector case law that is extremely strong and seems almost too one-sided when considering all of the facts of this case. Very few, however, have been willing to examine all of the facts of this case. Understanding the issues from both sides is relatively easy and can be done in a matter of minutes. Reading the pertinent case law and applying it correctly takes quite a bit little longer.

It is my greatest hope that this case will generate discussions among firefighters of all ranks and between all ranks. Union members, or at least their officers, should already be familiar with cases like Perry Education Association v. Perry Local Educators’ Association, but they should also understand other cases such as Tucker v. State of California Department of Education and Cornelius v. NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., where freedom of expression is affirmed. And, they should also look just as hard at cases such as City of San Diego, California et al. v. John Roe and Berry v. Department of Social Services, where such expression was rightly curtailed. In short, know your rights and your responsibilities. You cannot have one without the other, and abuses frequently occur at both ends of the spectrum.  Ignorance on either side (or both sides) of the debate can be a costly mistake.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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