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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane Valley Fire captain terminated for religious messages can sue, state Supreme Court finds

Capt. Jon Sprague stands with firefighters during a wildland fire training session on Wednesday, June 27, 2012, at in Spokane Valley, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

A former Spokane Valley Fire Department captain fired for sending religious emails through his work account can file a lawsuit claiming damages, the Washington Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The department violated Jon Sprague’s First Amendment rights, according to the Supreme Court, when he was terminated in 2012 for repeatedly using work email to send messages to his Spokane Christian Firefighters Fellowship group.

Sprague reportedly was warned several times before facing disciplinary action. His firing was upheld by the department’s Civil Service Commission before Spokane County Superior Court dismissed the case, a decision that was upheld by the state Court of Appeals.

On Thursday, the state Supreme Court noted 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,” Supreme Court documents read. “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.”

A trial could decide if termination of Sprague’s employment was justified and, if not, what damages he’s entitled to.

It is the fire department’s policy that its email system be used for department business only.

However, the department also had a bulletin board that connected 180 employees, and it was used for a variety of things, including personal business and concert tickets and an employee assistance program with newsletters discussing various topics, including mental health and parenting.

According to Court of Appeals Judge George Fearing, the health and wellness emails sent out were no different from Sprague’s.

Sprague told The Spokesman-Review last year he wasn’t surprised the Supreme Court decided to review his case, saying his actions had a solid constitutional foundation.

Sprague’s lawyer, Matt Albrecht, said the only possible defense left for the department is that it fired Sprague for a different reason.

“It seems unlikely because they described him to be a great firefighter,” said Albrecht, who said Sprague no longer lives in the Spokane area.

“To me it seems crystal clear it’s a violation of free speech rights. You can’t single someone out with a different viewpoint,” Albrecht said. “It’s not a surprise it ended up at the Supreme Court. Whoever won, we knew it would be appealed, and expect to see police and fire departments alter their rules after this.”

The department said it was reviewing the matter.

“ Spokane Valley Fire Department is reviewing the court documents released today,” SVFD spokeswoman Melanie Rose said. “The department will be considering next steps in close consultation with our attorney.”

Staff writer Amy Edelen contributed to this report.