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Addressing Religious Speech in the Workplace


October 14, 2016 by Oskar Rey
Category: Court Decisions, AGO Opinions and Regulations

Addressing Religious Speech in the Workplace

"There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin."—Linus, It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown (1966 Animated TV Special). 

There may have been a time when politics and religion were not discussed in polite company, but those days have passed. Local governments now face challenges in finding a balance between the rights of employees and officials to express their views and the statutory and constitutional constraints under which local agencies operate. With respect to political speech, MRSC recently posted guidance for maintaining workplace harmony and complying with RCW 42.17A.555. This blog post will analyze a recent Washington case that addressed religious speech in the workplace.

Sprague v. SVFD—When Technology Use Policies and Religious Expression Collide

Religious speech was a central issue in the recent Washington Court of Appeals (Division 3) case of Sprague v. Spokane Valley Fire Department, which involved a wrongful termination claim brought by a firefighter who used department email and bulletin boards to send religious messages. The termination was upheld by the court, but the case resulted in three separate opinions and illustrates the complexity of the issues surrounding religious speech in the workplace. 

Here are the facts: Jonathan Sprague formed the Spokane Christian Firefighters Fellowship (SCFF) and used the Spokane Valley Fire Department (SVFD) email system to distribute newsletters and notices of SCFF meetings. In addition to meeting information, the emails frequently contained scripture passages and the expression of religious views. SVFD had a policy of not allowing personal or private use of the SVFD email system. Employees were allowed to use SVFD computers to access and use their personal email accounts while on duty, but the policy prohibited personal use of the SVFD email system.

Mr. Sprague was instructed to cease using the SVFD email system for sending emails relating to SCFF. Mr. Sprague continued to use the SVFD email system and took the position that the department’s position constituted discrimination against his religious beliefs. SVFD imposed progressive discipline, and Mr. Sprague was ultimately terminated. Mr. Sprague brought suit against SVFD claiming his First Amendment (freedom of speech, free exercise of religion) rights had been violated. 

The Three Opinions in Sprague

A divided Court of Appeals found that the written SVFD policy did not violate Mr. Sprague’s First Amendment rights, but each judge issued a separate opinion.

The Lead Opinion. This opinion, which was joined by the concurring judge, found that the SVFD electronic employee communication policy was constitutional. “It should go without saying that a fire department’s business is firefighting, not discussion of religion.”

The Concurrence. The concurrence noted the thorny interplay of competing constitutional issues. On the one hand, public employees have free speech rights as well as the right of free exercise of religion. On the other hand, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prevents government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion . . . .” By allowing Mr. Sprague to use his personal email at work and discuss religion verbally with co-workers, the concurrence found that SVFD “successfully navigated between the Scylla of not respecting Mr. Sprague’s free speech right and the Charybdis of exposing it to Establishment Clause liability . . . .” 

The Dissent. A spirited dissent noted that SVFD used its email system to send newsletters on topics such as suicide, team building, and gambling. For the dissent, the issue was whether SVFD’s preclusion of religious speech “was viewpoint neutral when the mental health newsletter discussed some of the same topics from a secular view.” According to the dissent, once the government permits some comment on a particular subject, it may not “prefer secular chatter over religious oration.” 

What’s the Takeaway?

The interplay between a government’s Establishment Clause responsibilities and the First Amendment rights of government employees is complex. Here are a few tips for getting safely across that minefield:

  • Understand your jurisdiction’s technology use and email policies. Some jurisdictions, like SVFD, prohibit personal use of their email system but allow access to personal email while on duty. Others allow for “incidental” personal use of their government email accounts. If your jurisdiction does not have a policy, here are some examples to consider.
  • Enforce technology use policies in an even-handed way, but do not allow religious proselytizing. If unsure, ask yourself if the communication would be appropriate under your jurisdiction’s policy if it were about a secular, non-work related topic. 
  • Consult with your legal counsel before taking disciplinary action against an employee for using government systems for religious speech. Also, consider the perspective of other members of the organization and the public who are the recipients of religious speech.
  • Remember that MRSC is here to consult with respect to specific situations that may arise. 

Have a question or comment about this information? Want to see a blog post on another topic? Let me know below or contact me directly at orey@mrsc.org

About Oskar Rey

Oskar Rey has practiced municipal law since 1995 and served as Assistant City Attorney for the City of Kirkland from 2005 to 2016, where he worked on a wide range of municipal topics, including land use, public records, and public works. Oskar is a life-long resident of Washington and graduated from the University of Washington School of Law in 1992.

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