A firefighter is contesting discipline handed down by the Spokane Valley Fire Department for sending emails with religious content to other firefighters using the department’s email system.
Capt. Jon Sprague was suspended without pay for two 24-hour shifts for conduct unbecoming an officer and violation of an order given by a superior officer. Fire commissioners, however, said the discipline should be suspended until mediation is complete.
Sprague said he is fighting the disciplinary action because it is a violation of his First Amendment rights.
“It’s a use of public funds,” said Fire Chief Mike Thompson. “It’s the department’s email system. We have certain controls and obligations.”
In 2010, Sprague started the Spokane County Christian Firefighter Fellowship group. He began sending out emails announcing meetings and events and posting notices about meetings on the department’s electronic bulletin board. He also sent out a link to a monthly newsletter. Sprague said the emails are sent to fellow firefighters he has gotten to know in his 17 years with the department.
“It only goes to 46 people who have never complained, who are known to be Christian or have a religious faith,” he said. When he first started sending the emails one person asked to be removed from the mailing list and he was, Sprague said.
Sprague received a letter regarding inappropriate use of department email in January. A letter of counseling for the same offense followed in April and in May he received a letter of reprimand. Sprague said that in response he stopped quoting scripture in the emails and tried to tone down the religious content. “It has come down to you can’t use religious words,” he said. “I don’t communicate about religion. There’s no proselytizing. Now I’m not sure what I can and can’t say. ”
Thompson said he has tried to work out the issue with Sprague. “I did go out to the station and meet with him and we talked,” he said. “We’ve had email exchanges.”
Sprague said he has no plans to stop sending the emails. “Personally, it’s a matter of faith and conscience,” he said. He believes he has a responsibility to provide support to other firefighters. The topics his fellowship group discusses are often job related, he said, including discussions on leadership from a Biblical perspective and firefighter suicide. “Is this personal use? It’s not personal use. It’s job related.”
Plenty of other people send out emails that are unrelated to work, he said. Thompson sends out emails for the Spokane Guild School Penny Drive fundraiser and recently a firefighter emailed a vacation video of a Muslim prayer service to everyone in the department, Sprague said. “There’s not consistency.”
“From my perspective it’s a community service project,” said Thompson of his Guild School emails. “We do a lot of community service. We have never prohibited the firefighters from sending emails about the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the (Spokane Valley Firefighters) Benevolent Association. Those are things we try to do to support the community.”
Thompson said Sprague does have other options. “He could get everybody’s personal email and not use the department’s system,” he said.
Sprague said he does send his email to personal email addresses if the recipient requests it.
Sprague and representatives of the department met this week for mediation. “We didn’t come to a resolution,” he said. “There was a good discussion. I don’t think anything changed on either side.”
Sprague has requested the involvement of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces federal laws banning discrimination. There will likely be an investigation, Sprague said, but beyond that he’s not sure what happens next. Local 876 of the International Association of Fire Fighters has filed a grievance on his disciplinary action. Sprague has also considered filing a lawsuit.
“The way things are progressing, I don’t think I’ll be employed by Valley Fire in three or four months,” he said. But Sprague said his decision to continue sending the emails about the fellowship group is not something he takes lightly, particularly since he is the sole provider in his family. “I don’t do it frivolously,” he said. “Life is more than security. Life is freedom, freedom of conscience and the freedom to live your convictions.”
Thompson said termination is a possibility but he hopes it doesn’t come to that. “We have rules that we have to apply and we have to apply them equally,” he said. “There are always going to be shades of gray. It’s not all going to be black and white.”
Sprague said he doesn’t hold any ill will toward the chief or anyone in the department. “On my end, it’s not personal,” he said.