SPOKANE VALLEY, Wash. — A former Spokane Valley firefighter who was fired for using religious language on his government email account took his case to the Washington Supreme Court and won.
John Sprague worked as a Spokane Valley firefighter for nearly 18 years. He started his career later in life and earned several promotions along the way. It all ended because of emails for a Christian support group with fellow firefighters.
Sprague was fired in 2012. He took the case to court and fought for more than six years and says he finally feels vindicated. He said he always knew he had a strong case but after losing in the lower courts several times, he admits he considered giving up.
Sprague was using his work email to contact fellow firefighters about a Christian fellowship group using his work email account.
The Spokane Valley Fire Department management warned Sprague to stop using the email account for the fellowship group or he would lose his job.
“We had a Christian firefighter fellowship even before I had come along. We even had involvement with another chief who had come before this chief. And everything was totally above board, very accepted. But the chief that had come along later on didn't feel that was appropriate,” Sprague explained.
Sprague said the group cut back on their communications and limited their discussion topics but didn't stop the email exchange.
“We just started talking about topics that the department was already talking about, maybe just trying to provide some Christian support for the Christian officers that would actually enhance what the department was talking about, not replace it with something else,” he said.
Sometimes Sprague said he did use a personal email.
“It was still like asking me to drink from a different water fountain, simply because I have a different opinion than you. And we didn't want to go there,” he explained.
Then, after months of back-and-forth, Sprague was fired. At first, he fought the decision through internal appeals, then eventually filed a lawsuit over free speech. He claimed government employees shouldn't lose their protections of free speech, even if that speech is about religious views.
As months turned into years in court, he always believed he would eventually be able to get back to work. Years after being fired, Sprague stayed in shape to make sure that he was ready to go back to work as a firefighter. Until it became clear, he would never again be a firefighter. He had to find a new job to support his family.
“It was very hard to leave. I think there are certain professions that become so much of who you are, your identity, that it really was almost like dying and starting over,” Sprague said.
Setback after setback, Sprague kept a firefighter's focus on staying the course and getting through to the other side.
“Once you've jumped off the cliff, there's really nowhere else to go. You've gotta keep pursuing it. I'm raising two grandkids, and it came down to looking them in the eye and saying, 'Did I do what I could do to protect your rights, your life going forward,'” he said.
In 2017, the case made its way to the highest court in the state.
“It was very long odds to have the Supreme Court to take up the case, because it's optional for them and they don't take very many cases,” he said.
It took another six months for the decision that would change everything. The Washington State Supreme Court sided with Sprague, saying his rights had been violated and it was wrong to allow department administrators to decide matters of the Constitution.
“It was gratifying to me that the Supreme Court was willing to take on such a difficult topic. And it spoke to how seriously they take protecting free speech,” he said.
Even after the court's decision, it took another year of final legal hurdles to finally reach a settlement agreement with Spokane Valley Fire. They agreed on nearly $1 million payout and retirement benefits. Sprague admits, his life has never been the same since he was forced out, but much like a fire, he knows the devastation he's endured isn't the end of his journey.
“Now we continue to find a different way to express my convictions, my faith, and I hope those people I've left behind will have a little bit more confidence to express theirs,” Sprague said.
KREM reached out to the Spokane Valley fire department and their legal team. The Spokane Valley Fire Department said in an email:
"The Spokane Valley Fire Department respects all the rights of its employees. The parties agreed that the settlement is not an admission of wrongdoing and was made solely for the purposes of avoiding the time and expense of continued litigation. The Department’s insurance carrier, who is responsible for the settlement payment, advocated for the same. The Department is pleased that this matter, which began in 2012, may soon be resolved, and the Department will continue to focus on providing high quality services to its communities."
KREM learned those documents have been signed. For Sprague and his lawyer, it's a great victory, not only for them, but for all employees in Washington.