Discrimination against Christian ideas has been handed a big reprimand by the Washington state Supreme Court.
The justices ruled Thursday a former fire captain who was fired for sending emails with religious content through his work account can sue the Spokane Valley Fire Department for damages because his First Amendment rights were violated.
Jon Sprague pointed out other employees used the same email system for a variety of other purposes, such as seeking babysitting and selling concert tickets. There also were discussions of substance abuse and conflicts with children.
But when Sprague shared thoughts from the Bible, he ended up unemployed.
The high court previously returned the case to the lower courts because of unresolved issues over the fire department’s violation of Sprague’s First Amendment rights.
Sprague sent several postings about the Spokane Christian Firefighters Fellowship and was first warned, then fired.
His firing was upheld by the department’s Civil Service Commission. The Spokane County Superior Court then dismissed the case, and the decision was upheld by the state Court of Appeals.
But the state Supreme Court pointed out Thursday that the Court of Appeals declined to address the merit of Sprague’s claims.
“Sprague has met his initial burden to show that the SVFD’s restrictions on his speech violated the First Amendment. On remand, the burden will shift to SVFD to show by preponderance of the evidence that it would have reached the same decision as to (Sprague’s) employment termination even in the absence of the protected conduct,” the court said.
Sprague could be awarded damages.
The agency’s policy requires that its communications systems be used for department business only. But Court of Appeals Judge George Fearing noted health and wellness emails sent through the system were no different than Sprague’s emails.
“To me it seems crystal clear it’s a violation of free speech rights,” said Matt Albrecht, Sprague’s lawyer. “You can’t single someone out with a different viewpoint.”
The Pacific Justice Institute filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the dispute.
Brad Dacus, president of PJI, called it “a terrific victory for Capt. Sprague, and an important reminder of First Amendment principles.”
“No employee should be terminated for speaking on otherwise-permissible topics at work, just because he has a religious perspective.”