AUGUSTA, Maine – Augusta, Maine school educational technician Toni Richardson alleges her employer reprimanded her for telling a colleague she would pray for him as he struggled to adapt to his new job last fall.
Richardson was working as a special education technician at Cony High School when she told a colleague who attends the same church in September as her that she would pray for him during a difficult time adjusting to a new job, Fox News reports.
Months later, after a falling out with the co-worker, Richardson contends she was “interrogated” by school officials and issued a “coaching memorandum” forbidding her from discussing her faith with anyone at school, including in private conversations, according to CentralMaine.com.
“An investigation of your concerns indicated that you may have imposed some strong religious/spiritual belief system towards Mr. (redacted). 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,” the memorandum read.
“In the case of, Everson v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court applied the ‘establishment clause’ of the First Amendment to the state. In the context of the ‘separation of church and state,’ this case prohibits public school-sponsored religious expression. 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.”
“I was shocked that my employer punished me for privately telling a coworker, ‘I will pray for you,’” Richardson told Fox News’ Todd Starnes. “I’m afraid I will lose my job if someone hears me privately discussing my faith with a coworker.”
On Tuesday, Richardson and attorneys with the religious liberty firm First Liberty Institute held a press conference in front of the State House to announce they filed a federal discrimination complaint against the district with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Central Maine reports.
“This entire year Toni has had to self censor herself, making sure she’s not using religious language,” her attorney Jeremy Dys said. “This has been a hard year for Toni. She’s even had to refrain from wearing jewelry that has a cross on it, because if someone were to overhear this private conversation or see that religious imagery around her neck, then she could face discipline or even be terminated.”
District officials said they were surprised by the complaint because they allege they were working with the Institute to settle the matter without resorting to legal action.
“We were very surprised and extremely disappointed by the filing of this EEOC complaint for the simple reason that we had made a good faith proposal to Ms. Richardson’s lawyers to address her concerns and resolve this matter,” according to a prepared statement.
“And while they had promised to get back to us (and we were waiting to hear from them), they have instead chosen to litigate without any response to our proposal.”
Richardson said the intent of the EEOC complaint is simple.
“All I’m asking for is for the memo to be taken away,” she said at the press conference. “It makes me feel nervous and scared.”
“No one should be threatened with losing their job for privately telling a co-worker, ‘I will pray for you,’” Dys added, according to WMTW. “School employees are not required to hide their faith from each other while on campus.”