No Religious Bias in Fire Department Email Rule

     (CN) – A fire department did not violate a firefighter’s free-speech rights when it prevented him from sending emails with Bible passages at work, a divided Washington Court of Appeals panel ruled.
     As recounted in the Sept. 21 ruling, Jonathan Sprague was a captain for the Spokane Valley Fire Department, where he started a group of Christian firefighters.
     Sprague used the department’s email to send messages about the Christian fellowship, which often incorporated Bible passages and topics to be discussed at meetings, according to court documents.
     The fire department has a policy prohibiting using work email for personal uses, and it disciplined Sprague for including religious content in his emails.
     Eventually, the department suspended and fired him after a mediation process failed.
     Sprague claimed in state court he was the victim of religious discrimination and free speech violations.
     A Spokane County judge found Sprague’s cause of action was barred by collateral estoppel and found in favor of the department.
     After hearing oral arguments, the majority of an appellate panel found the department’s email policy was reasonable and content neutral under the U.S. Constitution, and affirmed the lower court’s decision.
     “It is the nature of the communications, not the viewpoints expressed in them, that matters,” Judge Kevin Korsmo wrote for the majority. “There is no discrimination against some messages or in favor of some others. Instead, there is a complete ban on private usage (absent work-related necessity) of the systems without regard to the message conveyed by the sender.
     In a lengthy dissent that begins with a Bible quote, Judge George Fearing argued that the department’s ban on Sprague’s evangelism was “viewpoint discrimination.”
     The fire department used its email system “in part, as a bulletin board,” Fearing wrote in his 35-page dissent, and noted that the department’s insurer used it to send newsletters about topics like suicide prevention, binge drinking, and eating disorders, though through a secular lens.
     “Both the newsletters and Jonathan Sprague’s missives mentioned suicide and how to prevent suicide,” Fearing wrote. “A newsletter spoke of depression. Arguably, Sprague also mentioned coping with depression. The fire department’s topic of team building may overlap Sprague’s lecture on leadership.”
     “Unfortunately, the law gives no guidance as to what constitutes one topic or subject matter for purposes of viewpoint discrimination.”
     Fearing also noted that Sprague’s “evangelism was limited to coworkers” and that there was no evidence that anyone at the department thought it “sponsored or approved of any message” he sent.
     The judge is the son of a minister, and is a board member at his church, according to the website for his reelection campaign.

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