Fire Captain Discharged For Refusing To Stop Using Department Email For Religious Messages

Jonathan Sprague was a captain with the Spokane Valley, Washington Fire Department. Sprague formed the Spokane Christian Firefighters Fellowship, and in 2011 began distributing newsletters and meeting notices for that group via the Department’s e-mail system.

Sprague’s messages concerning Fellowship meetings often contained scriptural passages and mentioned the topics being discussed at the meetings. The Department responded by reminding Sprague that its e-mail system was to be used for business purposes only and that e-mails should not include religious references. The Department allowed employees to access their personal e-mail while at work, but they were not permitted to make personal use of the Department’s system.

Sprague complained that the policy constituted religious discrimination. A fire commissioner responded by directing Sprague to not use “Department e-mail to post, discuss, or in any way disseminate communications that are sent for any purpose other than official Department business. This means you cannot send messages using your official Department e-mail which discuss the Fellowship or any other private purpose. Department e-mail may only be used to disseminate communications concerning official Department business.”

Sprague declined to follow the policy and insisted on using the Department e-mail system to distribute information about meetings of the Fellowship. He also continued to employ scriptural passages in the e-mails and in bulletin board postings. A series of progressive disciplinary actions ensued. When Sprague would not stop his actions, the Department fired him. Sprague then sued, alleging that his termination violated his freedoms of speech and religion.

The Washington Court of Appeals dismissed Sprague’s lawsuit. The Court noted that “the question before us involves Sprague’s argument that the Department applied an anti-religion policy that was, therefore, not content neutral. His argument challenges the policy as it was allegedly practiced rather than as it was written.

“When it is alleged that the government is improperly infringing on free speech rights, the first question is to identify the nature of the forum that is being regulated in order to determine what level of judicial scrutiny applies. In a nonpublic forum, the government may impose restrictions so long as they are reasonable in light of the purpose served by the forum and are viewpoint neutral.

“The parties agreed the Department e-mail and bulletin board systems were both nonpublic fora. The remaining questions are whether the Department policy is reasonable and viewpoint neutral. Once again, the parties agreed in the trial court that it was. That conclusion is unassailable. The policy of this state, expressed in the ethics in public service act, is that public resources are to be used for official public business rather than for personal benefit. It would destroy the concept of a nonpublic forum to hold that limiting the use of a government computer system to government business was not reasonable. Accordingly, the written policy was a reasonable policy under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

“The written policy also was content neutral. It distinguished between communications related to the Department’s business and those that are personal to the employees. It is the nature of the communications, not the viewpoints expressed in them, that matters. There is no discrimination against some messages or in favor of some others. Instead, there is a complete ban on private usage (absent work-related necessity) of the systems without regard to the message conveyed by the sender.

“Because the written Department policy does not violate the First Amendment, we reject Sprague’s arguments.”

A dissenting judge penned one of the most unusual opinions reported in some time. The judge argued that Sprague’s lawsuit should be allowed to proceed because “Jesus Christ commissioned his contemporary and present-day disciples to teach others in the Christian faith. Religions in addition to Christianity also direct adherents to teach the religion’s moral lessons, rules of conduct, and eternal values. Since a person of faith spends much time with his or her coworkers, fellow employees often become the focus of sermonizing. The religious devotee encourages, and sometimes nags, coworkers, with promises of happier days, a fuller life, and eternal salvation, to adopt a different lifestyle. While proselytizing may annoy some coworkers, Washington proudly tolerates different religious views and braves open discussion of religion.”

Sprague v. Spokane Valley Fire Department, 2016 WL 5239627 (Wash. App. 2016).