Friday, September 23, 2016

Fire Department Can Exclude Employee's Religious Messages From E-Mail System

In Sprague v. Spokane Valley Fire Department, (WA App., Sept. 21, 2016), the Washington state Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision, upheld a fire department's termination of a firefighter who insisted on using the department's internal e-mail system to distribute religious messages.  Jonathan Sprague, founder of the Spokane Christian Firefighters Fellowship, was found to have violated departmental policies limiting use of the e-mail system to official communications. He sent out messages, including scriptural passages, on meetings of his group. Judge Korsmo's majority opinion concluded:
It should go without saying that a fire department's business is firefighting, not discussion of religion. Pointing out that Mr. Sprague violated the prohibition against public use in that specific manner did not thereby convert the policy to one of opposition to religious speech any more than challenging use of e-mails to promote chess tournaments or a political candidate could be interpreted as anti-chess or anti-political speech. The policy was anti-private use, not anti-religion.
Judge Lawrence-Berrey filed a concurring opinion.  Chief Judge Fearing dissented in an opinion that begins with a quotation from the Biblical Book of Matthew. He said in part:
The majority holds that the fire department held the prerogative to preclude the use of its e-mail for the voicing of religious messages. I note that a government entity, as a general proposition, enjoys this prerogative. Nevertheless, the Spokane Valley Fire Department opened its email system to employee messages of solving personal problems and societal ills through the grace of God when the fire department delivered employee assistance programs newsletters, through the department e-mail, addressing those same problems and ills. The Spokane Valley Fire Department's discipline of Sprague for addressing a topic from Sprague's spiritual perspective constituted viewpoint discrimination in violation of Sprague's free speech rights. The government may not prefer secular chatter over religious oration.