The Spokane Valley Fire Department on Monday fired a captain who continued to send religious emails from his department email account despite numerous orders to stop.
Capt. Jon Sprague, who runs the Spokane County Christian Firefighter Fellowship, has been disciplined several times for sending the emails. This year, he received a letter of counseling, a letter of reprimand and a second letter of reprimand with a suspension of two 24-hour shifts without pay before the Spokane Valley Board of Fire Commissioners voted unanimously to fire him.
Sprague sends out emails using the taxpayer-funded agency’s email system to a group of firefighters who have agreed to receive the notices. They contain information about upcoming meetings and events of a Christian fellowship group. He has emphasized that he is not proselytizing and said he believes sending the emails is his First Amendment right.
Department attorney Mike McMahon emphasized the department’s position that sending the email is an unlawful use of department resources. “This is a private purpose,” he said. “While this is about religion, it really isn’t about religion. It’s about following orders.”
McMahon called Sprague an “excellent firefighter” and a “good human being.”
In a prepared statement read to commissioners, Sprague defended his right to send the emails to fellow firefighters who agreed to receive them. “Their content has not violated a single rule of this department,” he said.
Sprague closed his comments by saying “In God we Trust.” The standing-room-only crowd of firefighters who attended the meeting to support Sprague burst into applause when he finished.
Commissioner Joe Dawson said the issue is that Sprague has repeatedly refused to follow the order to stop sending the emails.“This certainly doesn’t bring us any pleasure,” Commissioner Kolby Hanson said. “Certainly there’s no joy in doing this.” After the vote, Sprague shook the hand of each commissioner before receiving a series of handshakes and hugs from his fellow firefighters.
Sprague said he hasn’t decided whether he will appeal the decision through the Civil Service Commission or file a grievance through the union. He said an investigation is being conducted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces federal laws banning discrimination.
Rich Bruce, vice president of Local 876 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said the commissioners had other options and could have voted for a demotion or unpaid leave of absence instead. “We would have hoped that this decision would have been delayed until the EEOC goes through its process,” he said.
Sprague said he’s not sure what will come next for him. He was deployed to help fight several wildfires in the Northwest this summer and that overtime should help financially for a while, he said.
“God will provide a job somewhere,” he said. “He always has. If I didn’t trust him, I wouldn’t have gone this far.”
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