Overturns lower court decisions that said he improperly used email system to address social topics with Christian references…
(Kaylee McGhee, Liberty Headlines) The Washington State Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Spokane firefighter on Friday, who claimed he was fired for sharing his biblical perspectives on social topics in the workplace.
Capt. Jon Sprague led the Spokane County Christian Firefighters Fellowship group and repeatedly sent emails to fellow fighters about its activities.
The fire department reportedly told him not to use the department’s email system, and disciplined him for it several times before they fired him in 2012.
The department frequently sent newsletters from an employee assistance program covering social topics such as family conflict, suicide, and eating disorders.
The department described it as an electronic bulletin board that included posts by employees selling concert tickets and seeking babysitters.
“But when Sprague made announcements or sent emails with Scripture references — some on the very same social topics introduced by the fire department — he was disciplined and ultimately fired,” the Pacific Justice Institute, the nonprofit litigation group that represented Sprague, said.
The department’s Civil Service Commission upheld his firing, so Sprague filed a lawsuit against the department in the Spokane County Superior Court.
In it, he argued the department had violated his First Amendment rights by telling what he could and could not say in emails.
“His offense was failing to self-censor his religious expression, which the SVFD called insubordination and unbecoming conduct,” PJI said.
A judge in the Spokane County Superior Court dismissed Sprague’s lawsuit, ruling he should have appealed the commission’s decision instead of filing a lawsuit.
The Washington state Court of Appeals upheld that decision, but Sprague said that because of Judge George Fearing’s lengthy dissent, he hoped his case would go to the state’s Supreme Court.
In his dissent, Fearing said Sprague’s messages were not different from health and wellness emails others would send via the fire department’s system.
“Both the newsletters and Jonathan Sprague’s missives mentioned suicide and how to prevent suicide,” Fearing wrote. “A newsletter spoke of depression. Arguably, Sprague also mentioned coping with depression. The fire department’s topic of team building may overlap with Sprague’s lecture on leadership.”
The Washington Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Sprague, asserting the First Amendment protected his actions and that the department had engaged in viewpoint discrimination.
The Court said the fire department now has the burden of showing it would have fired him despite these actions.
“Sprague solicited feedback from his coworkers, including information from those who did not wish to receive the emails,” Wiggins wrote. “In fact, one employee requested to be removed from the list, and Sprague removed him.
“The facts simply do not support the department’s contention that Sprague’s position as captain coerced other employees to participate in religious activities.”