Spokane Valley Fire Department commissioners on Monday voted unanimously to suspend a firefighter without pay for two 24-hour shifts for continuing to use his department account to send religious emails to fellow firefighters after being ordered to stop.
But Capt. Jon Sprague said he plans to continue sending the emails, arguing that orders to stop violate his First Amendment protections.
“My only question is, where are we going?” he said. “At which point does this board wish to terminate my employment?”
Sprague has been sending emails about the Spokane County Christian Firefighter Fellowship he founded since 2010. Over time he has reduced the overtly religious content of the emails but refused to stop sending the emails to a list of 46 fellow firefighters.
On Monday, Sprague asked whether his discipline met the just cause requirement and whether there was a fair and objective investigation. “I don’t think that answer is before us right now,” said commission chairman Monte Nesbitt. “We’re just here to listen.”
Commissioner Kolby Hanson said the focus is not on the religious nature of the emails, but on the fact that Sprague continued to send them after he was ordered to stop. “That would be an act of insubordination,” he said.
Sprague countered: “It just seems that there’s been no impact at all on our services to the public because of my actions.”
Sprague should have stopped sending the emails when ordered, said Commissioner Bill Anderson. Sprague said he didn’t obey the order because he believes it is an unlawful one that violates his civil rights.
“Has the thought ever went through your head that what you have done is offensive to other people?” Nesbitt said.
The emails are not offensive to the 46 people that receive them, Sprague said. Hanson said the commissioners are not experts on free speech.
“We’re elected to serve the community and give governance to this department under the best advice we have,” he said. “I certainly respect your views.” The commissioners are simply trying to be consistent in enforcing the rules, he said. “We’re not the evil empire.”
Commissioner Joe Dawson said their decision must be based on the evidence. “Capt. Sprague did violate a direct order from the chief,” he said.
In other business, the commissioners voted in a split decision to fire firefighter Ryan Lieuallen. The vote came after a lengthy executive session and the reason for the termination was not given publicly. Commissioner Ron Schmidt joined Anderson in voting against the firing, with Schmidt asking if Lieuallen would consider taking a yearlong leave of absence.
“I am not requesting a leave of absence at this time,” Lieuallen said.
“I just don’t think he’s thought it through,” Schmidt said.
Hanson, who joined Dawson and Nesbitt in voting for termination, appeared to cast a reluctant vote. Hanson said he was interested in leaving Lieuallen’s options open for the future.
Lieuallen refused comment through union representative Rich Bruce, vice president of Local 876 of the International Association of Fire Fighters. Bruce said the union plans to file grievances for Lieuallen’s termination and Sprague’s suspension. “We do not feel there is just cause for termination,” Bruce said of Lieuallen.