Former Spokane Valley Fire Department Capt. Jon Sprague tried to convince the department’s Civil Service Commission on Monday that he was improperly fired in October.
Sprague was terminated after first being reprimanded and then suspended for two 24-hour shifts without pay for repeatedly sending religious emails from his department email account despite orders to stop. Sprague has argued that sending the emails, which are tied to his Spokane County Christian Firefighter Fellowship group, are a right of free speech.
The attorneys involved have 30 days to submit briefs.
Department attorney Mike McMahon submitted emails Sprague sent out to a group of firefighters as well as emails and letters between Sprague and his superiors. McMahon said Sprague’s right of free speech does not extend to the department email system.
“He was free, under our policies, to express his opinions to anyone who would listen,” he said. Sprague also had the option of using a private email address to send the emails to the private email addresses of the other firefighters, he said.
The department’s email can’t be used to send emails with religious content because the department cannot appear to favor one religion over another, McMahon said.
“This is not a religious discrimination case. He has violated a clearly stated workplace rule,” McMahon said.
Sprague was properly fired after numerous disciplinary actions failed to change his behavior, McMahon said. “It’s clear that he never intends to comply,” McMahon said.
Fire Chief Mike Thompson testified that the department had no other disciplinary issues with Sprague and that he was a good firefighter.
Sprague testified that he did modify his behavior to attempt to comply with directives from the department. He said he stopped including Bible verses in the emails and made other changes. Sprague said he was never told which words were objectionable. “It got down to any kind of word that was religious in nature. Simply using religious words does not mean there was a religious message. This has been a moving target,” he said.
Sprague said that if simply using the word “Bible” is a problem in an email then “I’m wondering how we can say the Pledge of Allegiance with good conscience.”
Some of the department’s training sessions included topics relating to spirituality, Sprague said.
“It certainly leaves you scratching your head about what is allowed and what is not,” he said. “I’m trying to tie into department training and department topics. We’re trying to make better firefighters.”
Sprague said he believes the orders he received to stop sending the emails violated his rights.
Sprague told the commission that it would do no good if they decided to give him his job back without clarifying what specifically is allowed and what isn’t. Doing so would be “taking me out of the fire and throwing me right back in the frying pan,” he said.
Commissioner John Sisser asked Sprague why he didn’t simply use personal email addresses. “If you had done that back in October 2010, we wouldn’t be in this position,” he said.
The department allows lots of other non-business emails to be sent, Sprague said. “They only restrict mine,” he said. “That’s a discriminatory action on their part.”
Monday’s hearing was not the first time Sprague has fought to get a job back. He filed an unsuccessful union grievance after he was fired from the Spokane Police Department in 1993. Sprague, who had been with the department for five years, was fired after he reportedly called the mother of 9-year-old assault suspect an unfit mother and allegedly illegally entered a home searching for a suspect. “It was a poor choice of words,” Sprague said of his conversation with the mother.
Sprague had been disciplined for improper conduct a total of six times during his time with the police department. Sprague said his other discipline involved driving incidents. “I got in a few car wrecks,” he said.
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