A Baptist mother and school staffer has filed a religious discrimination lawsuit against a Maine school system after administrators reportedly threatened to fire her for privately telling a co-worker she would pray for him.
The complaint was filed earlier this month on behalf of Toni Richardson, an educational technician at Cony High School, which is part of the Augusta School Department, by the local law firm Eaton Peabody and the First Liberty Institute of Plano, Texas.
Richardson is awaiting a response from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“We want to make sure that teachers and employees everywhere understand that you can certainly talk about your faith in private conversations at work,” Jeremy Dys, senior counsel for First Liberty, told the Baptist Press. “And that no employee, whether at a school district or elsewhere, should be punished or be threatened with dismissal for engaging in private conversations that say something like, ‘I’m praying for you.’
“What we have ... is a Constitution that provides neutrality by the government towards religion. And instead … we’re seeing an increasing hostility towards the free exercise of religion by state actors,” Dys said.
According to First Liberty’s account of the incident, which took place in September 2016, the co-worker, a fellow member at the Baptist church in Augusta, Maine, where Richardson leads a nursing home ministry, thanked her for her prayers.
“Even though the co-worker thanked Toni, the Augusta Schools Department interrogated her, asking whether she had ever identified herself to co-workers as a Christian or privately told a colleague she was praying for him,” First Liberty’s news release said.
But a Cony High School memorandum issued in mid-September last year tells an entirely different story. The memo, which addressed “staff relationships,” warned Richardson about her use of religious language in school.
The school claimed Richardson lodged a complaint against a male teacher whom she alleged behaved aggressively toward her during an encounter. The Cony High School administrators concluded that the Christian staffer “imposed some strong religious/spiritual belief system toward” the teacher.
“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,” school officials warned Richardson.
“In the case of Everson v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court applied the ‘establishment clause’ of the First Amendment to the states. In the context of the ‘separation of church and state,’ this case prohibits public school-sponsored religious expression,” the memo states. “Therefore, in the future, it is imperative you do not use phrases that integrate public and private belief systems when in the public schools.”
“Going forward, I expect when you disagree with a staff member, you will address it in a discrete and professional manner with no reference to your spiritual or religious beliefs,” the statement said.
If Richardson disobeyed the memorandum, the officials noted, she would be “subject to disciplinary action and/or possible dismissal.”
In a statement to the Baptist Press, Richardson said she was “shocked” by the school’s actions against her for her private conversations with fellow co-workers.
“I was shocked that my employer punished me for privately telling a co-worker, ‘I will pray for you,’” she told the outlet. “I am afraid that I will lose my job if someone hears me privately discussing my faith with a co-worker.”