AUGUSTA, Maine — A school board in Maine has agreed to uphold the rights of a special education technician after she was initially reprimanded for telling a coworker, who is a member of her church, that she would pray for him.
According to the First Liberty Institute, which represented Toni Richardson in an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEOC) complaint in May, the Augusta School Department has now issued Richardson an “updated memorandum acknowledging [her] protected First Amendment right to privately discuss religion among her coworkers.”
“Comments such as ‘God bless you’ or ‘I am praying for you’ are permissible when made to co-workers outside of the hearing of students,” the memo reads, noting that school employees have a right “to express religious beliefs or use faith-based language at school.”
As previously reported, Richardson had previously received a coaching memorandum warning that she could face disciplinary action or dismissal if she again told a frustrated coworker who attends her church “I will pray for you” or “You were in my prayers.”
“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.”
The matter began last fall when Richardson, who serves on the special education team at Cony High School, became concerned over the demeanor of her new coworker, which she described as being marked by frustration and “mood swings.”
“One moment everything would be great and he would appear motivated to serve our students, and then the next he would complain and agonize over how difficult the job was,” she wrote in her EEOC complaint.
Richardson also found the man to be hostile toward her at times, one day thanking her for her advice and support, and another telling her that she pulled “all the oxygen out of the room” by her mere presence.
At one point, in seeking to provide a word of encouragement after noticing his difficulty transitioning to the job, Richardson 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 recalled. “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.’”
As the man continued to display “erratic behavior,” during a meeting with her superiors, Richardson advised that she did not feel comfortable working with him any longer. She outlined that she had considered quitting her job because of the stress and discomfort she experienced from the man’s “confrontational and aggressive” demeanor toward her, as well as his unhappiness with the classroom procedures.
However, Richardson soon became the focus of questioning as the man—who had previously thanked her—now complained about her comments. She was asked whether she had told anyone that she was a Christian or made any faith-based statements, and 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 was also provided with a memo warning that any further violations could result in discipline or dismissal.
Feeling that she must walk on eggshells under the threat of losing her job, Richardson filed a complaint with the EEOC about the matter after attorneys with the First Liberty Institute were unsuccessful in reaching a settlement with the school.
“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,” she stated.
She outlined her belief that—contrary to the assertions of Cony officials—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 took 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 wrote.
On Nov. 10—over a year after being threatened over the matter—the Augusta School Department issued Richardson an updated memorandum acknowledging her right to speak about religion privately with her co-workers.
“I love my job helping special needs students succeed, and I am glad that I don’t have to sacrifice my First Amendment rights in order to be here,” Richardson, who continues to work at the school, said in a statement. “I hope my colleagues, and school employees across the country, will remember that the First Amendment still protects our private conversations at work.”