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Supreme Court Ruling Spurs Settlement Of Local Christian Firefighter’s Free Speech Claim

January 7, 2019 – Matt Albrecht

Settlement of local Christian firefighter's free speech claim

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of former local firefighter who was fired in 2012, yesterday the trial that was set to begin in February was cancelled. Instead, Sprague will receive $900,000 and significant additional retirement benefits from Spokane Valley Fire Department to bring a final resolution to the six-year-dispute over whether free speech for firefighters includes religious speech. Jonathan Sprague and his legal team, Matt Albrecht and David DeWolf, fought for the principle that public employees do not lose their free speech protections just because the employee discusses his or her religious views.

Jon was fired from his position as a veteran fire captain for using religious language in email correspondence. He and his legal team faced a series of disappointing decisions in the initial rounds. After being fired, Sprague asked for a quick resolution through internal administrative appeal processes, but his claim was rejected. When he sued in Spokane County Superior Court the judge dismissed his case without a trial.

An initial appeal was heard by Division 3 of the Court of Appeals, which issued a split decision upholding the trial court’s dismissal.  But Jon and his legal team kept going.  When Jon and his attorneys reached out to other groups seeking briefs for strengthening of their case and the defense of free speech, they found scant support. Even the Washington Employment Lawyers Association, whose stated mission is to “enforce and advance employee rights, in recognition that employment with dignity and fairness is fundamental to the quality of life”, filed a brief opposing the Christian firefighter’s case at the Supreme Court.

Employment and Free Speech still matter in Washington State
Sprague with his Attorney Albrecht after oral arguments to the Supreme Court

Although they only accept a fraction of the cases submitted to them for review, the Washington State Supreme Court agreed to hear the Constitutional issues, and after another six months of waiting for a decision, Jon and his team finally received the word they’d been hoping to hear all along. The Court affirmed that his rights had been violated, and that the lower courts were wrong to rely on the administrative review proceeding.

Jon said his goal was never about waging legal battles, but to simply encourage other Christian firefighters who, like him, face enormous stress day in and day out. He knew his decision to defend his workplace rights would not be well received by people on either side of the issue. “It was not only about educating the department on what the law said, but other firefighters, as well, who very often don’t know the rights they have or why it is important to defend them. It is up to each generation to preserve the liberty of speech, conscience, and conviction for the next, whatever the personal cost. Sometimes that means putting on a uniform, but it can also mean being willing to take one off.”

Most Americans will tell you that they’re supportive of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. However, it seems that most couldn’t tell you what it actually means or how it works. In fact, in a recently conducted survey, only one respondent (of more than 1000) was able to accurately name all five of the freedoms protected by the First Amendment. (In case you’re a little fuzzy on the topic, the five items guaranteed by the first amendment are freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.)

Lead counsel Matt Albrecht says “Seeing a client made whole after they’ve been harmed is the reason I do this work, but this case was unique, and David and I were thankful to have been a part of it. Because Jon was a Fire Captain, he knew as a leader he was responsible not just to the public but also to his fellow firefighters. I admire his courage and willingness to put himself on the line. I’m also grateful for having David’s strategic insights and skill in briefing, which were instrumental in bringing this case to a successful conclusion.”

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