The Washington Supreme Court has ruled that a fire captain who was fired for using his work email account to send emails to his Christian firefighters fellowship group can file a lawsuit against his former employer.
The state's highest court decided last Thursday that the merits of former Spokane Valley Fire Department Captain Jon Sprague's case were strong enough that a trial should decide if Sprague's rights were violated.
"Sprague has met his initial burden to show that the SVFD's restrictions on his speech violated the First Amendment," a court document states.
"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."
According to The Spokesman-Review, a trial will determine if Sprague is entitled to damages caused by his employment termination in 2012 for repeatedly using his work email to send emails to the Spokane Christian Firefighters Fellowship group when he was explicitly warned not to.
Sprague's firing was upheld by the department's own Civil Service Commission and was later dismissed in the Spokane County Superior Court. The superior court's decision would later by upheld by the Washington Court of Appeals.
However, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the Court of Appeals did not address the merits of Sprague's claims. The Supreme Court has remanded the case back to the Superior Court.
According to the fire department's policy, the email system is to only be used for department purpose only. However, Sprague and his attorney argue that the department email system is routinely used by employees for non-business-related purposes and that his firing was a selective enforcement of that rule.
"To me it seems crystal clear it's a violation of free speech rights. You can't single someone out with a different viewpoint," Sprague's lawyer Matt Albrecht told the Spokesman-Review. "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."
According to the court document, the Supreme Court also believes the fire department's policy was unfairly applied.
"In sum, we reverse the superior court's grant of summary judgement to SVFD. While Policy 171 is reasonable, SVFD applied it to Sprague in a manner that was not viewpoint neutral," the document reads. "Here SVFD permitted some viewpoints, but prohibited Sprague's viewpoint."
The court ruled that the fire department's interest in trying to obey the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment "does not outweigh Sprague's interest's under the First Amendment."
In a statement provided to The Spokesman-Review, a fire department spokesperson said that the department is reviewing the court documents and discussing the next steps of the case with the department's attorney.
The Pacific Justice Institute, an organization that advocates for religious freedoms, filed an amicus brief to the State Supreme Court on behalf of Sprague.
"This is a terrific victory for Capt. Sprague, and an important reminder of First Amendment principles," Brad Dacus, Pacific Justice Institute president, said in a statement. "No employee should be terminated for speaking on otherwise-permissible topics at work, just because he has a religious perspective."