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Spokane Valley Fire, former captain reach $900K settlement in free speech case

SPOKANE VALLEY, Wash. - It's been about six years since Jon Sprague's career with Spokane Valley Fire came to an end because of a disagreement over religious emails he sent to fellow firefighters with his work account.

That disagreement resulted in a six-year legal battle which eventually made its way to the state supreme court. The case just came to an end and now Sprague has nearly $1 million to show for it.

Sprague told KXLY in 2010, suicides among firefighters were becoming a national epidemic, so he wanted to revitalize the local chapter of the Christian Firefighter Fellowship.

"I realized that we needed to do more as firefighters, not just have programs but actually have contacts and groups, people that could get together and meet and build support," Sprague said.

He sent emails about the program and meet-ups to his coworkers to set up times to talk about leadership and suicide prevention -- and he did so for about a year, until he said it became an issue for his captain in late 2011.

"As he said, mentioning God or Jesus was a problem," he said.

Sprague told KXLY he was fired because of the emails in October 2012. The former captain, who planned to retire with SVFD, was now left to find a new job. 

"You get to a certain point where you see your finances are dwindling and you know, it really did take us to the bottom financially," he said.

Sprague and his lawyer, Matt Albrecht, eventually made it to the state supreme court with their case, where they argued public employees shouldn't lose their free speech protections because they talk about religion.

"These things were never intended to be confrontational. They were always intended to be encouraging, they were intended to be supportive," Sprague said. "I wasn't trying to supplant anything, but simply supplement it with views that they may not have to agree with, but some of the other firefighters did."

Spokane Valley Fire awarded Sprague with a $900,000 settlement and additional retirement benefits before the case was set to go to trial in February.

"Most of the time, both sides are better off when they can find a resolution that is not necessarily a winner-takes-all at trial," Albrecht said.

Spokane Valley Fire could not comment on the case Sunday, though KXLY is expecting to hear from the department's legal team on Monday.


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