A Baptist mother of two has filed religious discrimination and retaliation charges against a school system that threatened to fire her for privately telling a coworker she’d pray for him.
Attorneys for Toni Richardson, an educational technician with the Augusta (Maine) School Department, are awaiting a response from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) regarding the complaint filed May 16. First Liberty Institute of Plano, Texas and the Maine law firm Eaton Peabody filed the complaint May 16 regarding the September 2016 incident at Cony School.
“We want to make sure that teachers and employees everywhere understand that you can certainly talk about your faith in private conversations at work,” First Liberty Senior Counsel Jeremy Dys told 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.'”
The coworker, a fellow member of the Augusta Baptist church where Richardson leads the nursing home ministry, thanked her for her prayers, First Liberty said in a press release. But an Augusta Schools administrator “interrogated” Richardson, “asking whether she had ever identified herself to coworkers as a Christian or privately told a colleague she was praying for him,” First Liberty said.
Four days later, the school told Richardson in a coaching memorandum that “she could not use ‘phrases that integrate public and private belief systems’ while at school,” and threatened her with discipline or termination. The school cited the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, commonly known as separation of church and state.
“I was shocked that my employer punished me for privately telling a coworker, ‘I will pray for you,'” Richardson said in the press release. “I am afraid that I will lose my job if someone hears me privately discussing my faith with a coworker.” According to the memorandum, the document would not be placed in Richardson’s personnel file, and Richardson has subsequently received “all excellent marks” on an annual employee evaluation, Dys said.
The Augusta case and others typically arise out of a misunderstanding of the constitutionally guaranteed separation of church and state, Dys said.
“I don’t know that it is often intentional that people are trying to punish people for their religious beliefs, but more often they’ve bought into this idea that there is a so-called separation of church and state which requires them to stamp out any public displays of religion,” Dys told BP. “What we have in fact, though, 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.”