Maine School Employee Reprimanded for Telling Churchgoing Coworker ‘I Will Pray for You’

AUGUSTA, Maine — A special education technician at a public high school in Maine has filed a federal complaint against her school district after she was reprimanded for telling a coworker, who is a member of her church, that she would pray for them.

According to her complaint, Toni Richardson began expressing concern last fall about a new member of her special education team at Cony High School whose demeanor on the job was marked by frustration and “mood swings.”

At one point, in seeking to provide a word of encouragement after noticing her coworker’s difficulty transitioning to the new job, she told him privately that she would pray for him.

“I told him that I thought that the students could use a good male role model because many of them were from fatherless homes. I also knew he was a member of my church because I had worked alongside him at our church’s community dinners and at the nursing home ministry,” she recalls in her complaint. “So, as we were leaving for the day, I told him that I would pray for him. He said, ‘Thanks. That means a lot to me.'”

During a meeting days later, Richardson told officials that she did not feel comfortable working with the man any longer because of his ongoing “confrontational and aggressive” behavior, which sometimes was displayed in front of students.

However, Richardson soon became the focus of questioning during the meeting, as she was asked whether she had told anyone that she was a Christian or made any faith-based statements. When she admitted that she had told the man she would pray for him, Richardson was advised that her actions violated the First Amendment.

She soon received a memo reiterating the warning.

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“An investigation of your concerns indicated that you may have imposed some strong religious/spiritual belief system towards [your coworker]. Stating ‘I will pray for you’ and ‘You were in my prayers’ is not acceptable—even if that other person attends the same church as you,” it read.

“[I]n the future, it is imperative you do not use phrases that integrate public and private belief systems when in the public schools,” the memo stated. “Going forward, I expect when you disagree with a staff member, you will address it in a discreet and professional manner with no reference to your spiritual or religious beliefs.”

It warned that any future violations could subject her to disciplinary action or dismissal.

Feeling that she must walk on eggshells under the threat of losing her job, Richardson filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) about the matter.

“My comments …. were simple expressions of encouragement that I hoped that he would overcome the challenges he was facing and that he had my spiritual and moral support. Because I am a devoted Christian, I chose to place my sentiments in the context of my faith, and convey them in a private conversation with another adult from my church,” she wrote.

“Even though I merely meant to wish [him] well and voiced my hope that the challenges he faced would dissipate, the Augusta School Department admonished me for not expressing these sentiments in purely secular terms,” Richardson explained.

She believes—contrary to the assertions of Cony officials—that her speech was not violative of the First Amendment because her remarks were made in private to another adult and not to students. Richardson also takes issue with the memo’s assertion that she “imposed” her religious beliefs on her coworker, since he is a member of her church and is himself a professing Christian.

“Verbally reprimanding and ordering a school employee to refrain, during a private conversation, from telling a colleague who attends my same church that I am praying for him is an unlawful employment practice,” she states in her complaint.

Richardson is now being represented by the Texas-based First Liberty Institute.

“No one should be threatened with losing their job for privately telling a coworker, ‘I will pray for you,’” Senior Counsel Jeremy Dys said in a statement. “School employees are not required to hide their faith from each other while on campus.”


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  • bowie1

    Sound like the public school was violating the constitution by prohibiting her expression of encouragement with the phrase “I will pray for you.”

    • Sisyphus

      When a person says”I will pray for you” they should actually say, “I am too lazy or lack the inspiration to actually do anything that might help you, but I feel better about myself if I tell someone I’m praying for them”.

      • bowie1

        The man who was receiving the encouragement was accepting that offer so she WAS helping him. But the school had to butt in and discourage that word of encouragement.

        • Sisyphus

          Telling someone you will pray for them is an intellectually lazy and weak method of helping someone, primarily because one is offering nothing of substance. It’s actually insulting.

          • Jason Todd

            As is your post. Flagged.

          • TheLastHonestLawyer

            You seem to flag a lot of posts. Please explain how Sisyphus’ post violated the posted rules on commenting.

          • Debbie Dierking

            Whether you think it is lazy or not, does no make it illegal.

          • Michael C

            The question is not whether or not what this woman said was illegal.

            The question is whether or not it was illegal for her employer to reprimand her for saying it.

          • Sisyphus

            It creates a hostile work environment. Keep your superstition out of my face.

          • Jason Todd

            Pick a country that better suits your needs. Then move there.

          • Sisyphus

            I do have some property in Netherlands, maybe I’ll move. Come and visit sometime.

          • Sharon_at_home

            Why are you here if you honestly don’t want people to talk about their faith in ‘front of you’? It seems to be a bad place to be in that case. Are you only here to pick on our religious beliefs? It won’t do you any good as if a person is faithful, they will not change because of something a non-believer says in contrast to what we know by our faith.
            I know, you like a good debate? lol!
            I am interested about what the point of your posting here is, if you don’t like our beliefs “in your face”

          • TheLastHonestLawyer

            OK, how about this. You’ve been having a bade week, and your pagan coworker comes up and says “I’ve been casting spells for healing and protection on you, and have asked the Mother Goddess to take you under Her cloak.”

            Those are things which you, as a Christian, are supposed to stay away from. Now, the right thing to do would be politely tell your coworker that due to your faith, you’d prefer to not have her do these things. But it could become a HR complaint.

          • Sharon_at_home

            I could never insult someone and if I thought it would be an insult, I would not offer.
            Some things are not things that another person can help with. It’s not like we can stop them, say, from being afraid, but if they believe, praying for someone is about their faith, not about helping in the way you think of helping.
            I help people all the time, but I only pray for people of faith that would appreciate it.

        • Michael C

          Honestly, we’re only getting one side of this story. The coworker obviously did not feel “encouraged” by his interactions with this woman.

          • Jason Todd

            So what? If he didn’t, he should have acted like an adult and not whined about it to superiors.

            I’m sick and tired of this un-American, anti-Christian attitude people have to check their faith at the door.

          • Sharon_at_home

            He didn’t whine about it. Read the article Jason. It was the woman in the meeting that complained about him, and they asked about her talking to him. She was honest and said she had and told them what was said.
            It didn’t sound like he was involved in it past the offer of a prayer as far as the friend is concerned. He had another problem after with the woman who complained about him though.

          • LtColO

            How is it obvious? The story as reported says it was the SCHOOL OFFICIALS, not the man, who took issue. The only reason it came up was because the WOMAN no longer wished to work with the man because of his reputed bad behaviour. I’m genuinely fascinated how people keep attempting to turn this all on her. The story may have been reported wrong, sure, but from had been reported, there’s no evidence her comment bothered him. In fact, according to the story, he thanked her for saying it. How does that come to be “obviously didn’t feel encouraged”??

          • Michael C

            Again, we only have side of the story. Her side.

            Thank you for correcting me. I should not have used the word obvious.

            One could easily surmise that these two did not get along. The fact that this woman was reprimanded is evidence that her coworker did not appreciate his interactions with her and complained.

            I’m not arguing for either side. I simply refuse to form a judgment based on half of story. I guess I’m the only one.

          • Jason Todd

            There is no other side. You don’t check your faith at the schoolhouse door, no matter how many hateful proglodytes say you do.

          • Sharon_at_home

            Actually He said ” ‘Thanks. That means a lot to me.’” sounds like appreciation to me. And when we pray for each other it is to encourage each other when we know that someone is praying for us.

            I think the woman who said she didn’t want to work with him anymore was giving him attitude in the job, and he stood his grounds. She wouldn’t like that and wouldn’t want to work with him anymore. By saying he was ““confrontational and aggressive” in his behavior, she wouldn’t have someone to confront her about the things she did, and possibly cause her problems.

            A disagreement like it sounds she had with the man was more about them not getting along in the first place if he was continuously being confrontational and aggressive. Personality clashes I expect.

            The article did not say he was let go because of the woman’s complaint did it?
            Either way it wouldn’t matter if he was on board or not, the woman was complaining about the fact that she was reprimanded for something she said privately to someone she knew was in her church. So it didn’t matter what he thought or felt, it was not about him, it was about her right to speak to a friend privately.

      • Jason Todd

        What’s the point of this post?

        Flagged.

        • Parodyx

          You are simply flagging to harass people now.

          • TheLastHonestLawyer

            Well, it’s not like he wins a lot of arguments on the strength of his rhetorical skills . . .

          • Parodyx

            It’s odd to me that it’s rare to see the atheists and agnostics who post here going through each message blocking and flagging. They are more interested in actual discussion.

          • Sisyphus

            I don’t feel harassed, perhaps my nihilistic apathy explains that.

      • Sharon_at_home

        I don’t mean that when I say I will pray for you. I mean that I will pray for them about what I felt they needed help with. I don’t however say it to anyone without first confirming that they believe and would want me to pray for them.
        It’s not about lacking something to say, Sisyphus, it’s about our belief in God and that we look to Him for help in our daily lives.
        Just so you know, not every Christian is not like that.
        Have a great night!

  • Robert

    So few who even want to be a special Ed Teacher with all the extra work that goes with the Job. plus all the attention the kids must have each with their own special needs. I hope she sues for money and lots of it.

  • Sister Boogie

    A “federal complaint” over “I will pray for you”?

    Sounds kinda like the old Soviet Union, doesn’t it? America is no longer a free country.

    • Grace Kim Kwon

      Right. USSR could not erase off its godly grandmothers or the Christian Russian literature. Neither USA can regarding its Christian population or its world-wide Christian legacy.

    • Colin Rafferty

      I agree, she should not have filed a federal complaint.

      • Trilemma

        Why Not? The school is trying to deny her of her First Amendment rights.

        • Colin Rafferty

          You don’t have free speech rights in the workplace. Nor religious rights.

          • Debbie Dierking

            You don’t have to dump them at the door.

          • Colin Rafferty

            Yes you do. For example, I can express the most bigoted and racist hate speech outside of work, and have full protection. But if I did it at work, I would be fired.

          • LtColO

            That’s actually not true. I work for a large, global company and just yesterday I received training on almost exactly this scenario. The attorney conducting the training said unequivocally that the SCOTUS and all existing law uphold the right to express your faith in this manner. Especially given the context (members of the same church and a private conversation overheard by no one else). She most definitely has a case.

          • Colin Rafferty

            I think either you misunderstood or were misled. Just because she is treating people differently because of their religion in private doesn’t make it okay. It just means that she is hiding her discrimination.

          • LtColO

            I appreciate you have every right to think I’m misled, but given that I was instructed by a practising attorney whose job is to act as counsel for a Fortune 100 company including cases he’s dealt with just like this, I’ll go with his expert opinion.

          • Colin Rafferty

            Then you misunderstood. She can’t treat people differently based on religion. If I tried that at my workplace, I’d be fired. And so would you, I hope.

          • Jason Todd

            Mic drop.

          • Sharon_at_home

            what exactly did she discriminate against? I can’t see discrimination in a prayer offer to someone who is also religious. In private with no one else hearing. No one was discriminated against that I can see.
            Can you explain this for me please, Colin.

          • Colin Rafferty

            The issue isn’t about how she’s treating her co-religious co-worker, but all her other co-workers. She is not giving them the same kind of special treatment she is giving the member of her Church.

            It’s really a lose-lose situation for her to bring her religion into work. There are two possibilities here when dealing with co-workers of different faiths:

            1. She tells them she is praying for them, which is inappropriate because they don’t follow her religion.
            2. She does not tell them she is praying for them, and is now treating them worse because of their religion.

            She can’t win if she brings her religion into how she treats other people, so it’s best not to. I certainly don’t bring religion into my job, and definitely do not treat people differently based on their faith.

          • Sharon_at_home

            When did she treat her co-workers badly? By not saying anything she was discriminating? Is that what you are saying?

          • Colin Rafferty

            Yes. By doing things for a member of her church, and doing nothing for non-members, that’s discriminating.

          • Sharon_at_home

            So if she did things for someone – anything? – and did not do the same for the others in their office, it’s discrimination, or is it just because it is about religion? I mean , I’m sure I helped some people when I worked and did not help others for various reasons. (I wasn’t religious then so it would not have been about that).
            This is confusing to me because it has something to do with religion but it sounds like a person could discriminate about more than just that if just not saying anything to someone is.
            Bless you for your help Colin. I look forward to understanding this with your help!

          • Trilemma

            No you don’t according to the First Amendment, the Civil Liberties Act, and reasonable accommodation laws

          • Colin Rafferty

            What do reparations to interned Japanese have to do with speech?

            Or did you mean something different from the Civil Liberties Act?

            And do you actually think that you would not be fired for expressing racist hate speech at work, or that you would be able to sue?

          • Trilemma

            Sorry. Civil Rights Act.

            Saying, “I’ll pray for you,” is not racist hate speech nor does it create a hostile work environment nor does it constitute harassment. Your question merely points out that there is a limit to what is protected.

          • Colin Rafferty

            I wasn’t saying “I’ll pray for you” is racist hate speech. I was saying that you do not have First Amendment rights in your workplace, and using hate speech as an example to show that.

            As I said earlier, the issue is that she is giving special treatment to members of her own religion, and at the expense of coworkers with different religions. She is not allowed to treat her coworkers differently based on their religion.

          • John O

            Acts 5:28-29 (NASB)

            28
            saying, “We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and yet, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.”

            29
            But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.

            u are not the 1st one to try to control mens speech. your choice is evident be posting negative opinions on a supposedly Christian web site. that is a constitutional right u don’t wish to give to somebody that wants to pray.

          • Colin Rafferty

            I’m not trying to control anyone’s speech, and certainly not on this website. When you are at your workplace, especially if it’s a government workplace, your rights are going to be restricted.

            For example, at work, you can’t treat people differently because of their religion.

          • John O

            call on the Name of Jesus and get the Holy Spirit. your chain of command will put God ahead of government.

          • Colin Rafferty

            Here in the US, the government comes before religion.

          • John O

            I know. when I called the institute on the constitution I said I live in a communist country and haven’t moved. she said “I know, and nobody cares”. I did my military in the 50’s when the commies were the other guys. we now have 50 registered commies in congress. your choice, I won’t bother wasting any prayers on u. u might be offended.

          • Colin Rafferty

            There are no members of the communist party in the Congress. Only republicans, democrats, and a couple of independents or socialists.

          • Trilemma

            Though limited, in the USA everyone has religious rights in the workplace. As a government employee, Toni Richardson’s religious rights are well established. In such matters, the EEOC uses the, “GUIDELINES ON RELIGIOUS EXERCISE AND RELIGIOUS EXPRESSION IN THE FEDERAL WORKPLACE” published by the White House in August 14, 1997 as a guide.

          • Colin Rafferty

            Yes, she had the right to believe and act as she wants. But her interactions with her co-workers also need to protect their rights.

            The issue here is not about the person she was talking with, but all her co-workers who are not members of her church. They are being treated differently because of their religion, and that is what is inappropriate.

          • Trilemma

            How are her co-workers being treated differently because of their religion?

          • Colin Rafferty

            She would not also be telling them that she is praying for them. And she can’t tell them she is praying for them, because that is effectively telling them that their religion is wrong.

            Bringing your religion into how you treat your coworkers is a real can’t-win situation, because you will now treat people of different religions worse than those of the same. You can exclude them from your religious activities, which is inappropriately treating them unequally, or you can include them, in which case you are insulting their religion.

          • Trilemma

            Ridiculous argument. This is not about discrimination. She doesn’t have to say, “I’ll pray for you,” to everyone just because she said it to one person any more than she would have to say,”Good morning,” to everyone if she said it to one person.

          • Colin Rafferty

            If she only said “good morning” to people of her own religion, then yes, that would be discriminating against people not her religion.

          • John O

            wow. when did the space ship land?

  • Grace Kim Kwon

    USA has too much food to spare on a starving planet. That’s why people sue each other for nothing there, and Non-christians sue the Christians who only do good.

    • Michael C

      Perhaps you didn’t actually read this article.

      This woman wasn’t sued. She’s the one doing the “suing.”

      • Grace Kim Kwon

        Atheists sue the Christians for praying and the Sodomites do the same for telling the life-saving truth. It’s a national trend. A madness. Christians should have rights to pray and tell God’s truth as it is.

        • Michael C

          Um, huh? Okay. What? Wait, what?

          …but I think you just said that this lady is suing the school because she’s had too much to eat.

          • Grace Kim Kwon

            Americans should altogether stop suing the Christians for doing what is good and right. America is too wealthy and that’s why they waste their energy. We’d never have a moon base!

          • Michael C

            At this rate, we’d never have a moon base because atheists drain Christians’ resources!

            Um, huh? Okay. What? Wait, what?

            Christians are trying to build a moon base?!

          • Grace Kim Kwon

            No, but if America bullies the Christians, it’ll lose God’s blessings and the nation will go fragmented. There will be less smart (practically AND morally) kids for the nation. Development will be slower, for the better and worse. USA needs godly patriots to sustain the planet…

      • LtColO

        She was reprimanded. Formally disciplined by her employer.

        • Michael C

          …yes. (?)

          Is that the same as being sued?

          Employers can reprimand employees for things even if those things aren’t illegal or infringe on the rights of others.

          • LtColO

            I wasn’t saying it was. I was clarifying what happened to her vis-a-vis the comment about her being sued.
            That said, being reprimanded by your employer is potentially no small thing and their judgement isn’t always correct and can be successfully legally challenged, hence the formal complaint by the woman.

          • Michael C

            Cool beans.

            Feel free to let me know if any of that has anything to do with anything I’ve actually said.

  • Trilemma

    Looks like some school officials will be getting schooled.

  • http://maxfurr.com HobbesianWorld

    Surely there must be more to this story. We’ve heard only one side. Not enough for judgement. However, if what she said is true, then the school had no business in reprimanding her. It’s difficult to believe, however, that it went down as mentioned.

    Had she said it to a classroom, it would definitely be a violation because it would be religious speech–by an agent of the government–to a captive audience.

  • Deborah Harris

    Well she could have said “the universe is watching over you”, and probably wouldn’t have been admonished. Ricdiculous of the highest in this ridiculously political correct world. Very acceptable behaviour for everyone but a Christian.