Spokane Valley Captain Fired For Religious Emails

The strange case of the Spokane Valley fire captain who refuses to stop sending out religious emails over the department’s email system is back in the news. Captain Jon Sprague was terminated last Monday following his refusal yet again to stop sending religious emails to fellow firefighters.

In 2010 Captain Sprague, who by all accounts is an excellent firefighter, started the Spokane County Christian Firefighter Fellowship group. He then began sending out emails using the department’s email system announcing meetings and events, and posting notices about meetings on the department’s electronic bulletin board.  When the department administrators discovered Captain Sprague‘s activities they initially issued him a letter of counseling.

Captain Sprague continued sending out emails and was subsequently disciplined four times, with progressive discipline being imposed starting with reprimands and ending more recently with a suspension for two 24 hour shifts without pay.

His position is that sending the emails is protected by the First Amendment and as a result he has not violated any department rules. Captain Sprague contends that he only sends the emails to a select group of firefighters who had agreed to receive them.  The fire department’s position is that sending email for a private purpose constitutes an unlawful use of department resources.

The Spokane Valley Board of Fire Commissioners voted unanimously to terminate Sprague for his continuous defiance of its orders. Captain Sprague is yet to decide whether to appeal his termination with the Civil Service Commission, file a grievance through the union, or file suit. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has started an investigation.

Rich Bruce, vice-president of the IAFF Local 876, said that the city should have considered other discipline options such as a demotion or unpaid leave of absence before terminating Captain Sprague.

It would appear that such a tact would merely delay the inevitable. Captain Sprague deliberately ignored clear orders from his superiors in an effort to provoke a confrontation where his right to use publicly funded infrastructure to push his religious agenda would be squarely in issue. That will inevitably be the issue as the case winds its way through the court system.

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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