Toni Richardson is a Functional Skills Educational Technician at a high school within the Augusta School Department in Augusta, Maine. She works with students who have special needs due to cognitive and emotional disabilities and helps them learn important skills for functioning in life.
Toni is a devout Christian who considers her faith to be foundational to her life. She is active in ministry, serving others through her church’s nursing home ministry and also the monthly dinners given by her church for members of the community who are less fortunate.
She says, “Because my faith is an integral part of who I am, my religious beliefs influence how I see the world and sometimes affect the words and phrases I use as a part of casual conversations with friends and colleagues. I pray often for the people I care about and sincerely believe in the power of prayer.”
In September 2016, however, Toni was interrogated by a school official about the religious content of her conversations. The official asked Toni if she had told anyone at the school she was a Christian, that she would pray for them, or if she had made any “faith-based statement[s].” According to the official, such statements would even include phrases like “That’s a blessing.”
The school official told Toni that she was violating the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and that she couldn’t tell people they would be in her prayers—which was something Toni had recently done one day at work in a private conversation with a coworker.
In that conversation, Toni had sought to encourage her coworker by telling him that she would pray for him. The conversation occurred after students had left class and while Toni and the coworker were alone. At the time, Toni’s coworker—who attended her church—thanked her for her kind gesture.
Regardless, soon after being interrogated, Toni was sent an official, written “coaching memorandum.” The memo stated that it was “imperative” that Toni stop “us[ing] phrases that integrate public and private belief systems when in the public schools.”
The memo asserted that the phrases “I will pray for you” and “you were in my prayers” were “not acceptable – even if that other person attends the same church as you.” The memo also invoked the “separation of church and state” and threatened that if Toni had any other conversations that school officials decided were “unprofessional,” Toni would face further disciplinary action and could even be fired.
“I was shocked that my employer punished me for privately telling a coworker, ‘I will pray for you,’” Toni stated in a press release. “I am afraid that I will lose my job if someone hears me privately discussing my faith with a coworker.”
Toni retained the assistance of First Liberty Institute, and on May 16, 2017, First Liberty and the elite Maine law firm Eaton Peabody filed a complaint on Toni’s behalf with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
The complaint argues that the school’s actions show hostility toward Toni’s expression of faith and constitute “unlawful viewpoint discrimination” banned by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It also stated that under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, school districts like the Augusta School Department are required to accommodate the religious beliefs of its employees.
“No one should be threatened with losing their job for privately telling a coworker, ‘I will pray for you,’” Jeremy Dys, Senior Counsel at First Liberty Institute, stated. “School employees are not required to hide their faith from each other while on campus.”
“What Augusta Public Schools did by punishing Toni for discussing her faith in a private conversation with a coworker is unconscionable,” stated Timothy Woodcock, an attorney with Eaton Peabody. “The law is clear: employers cannot discriminate against employees who privately discuss their faith while at work.”
Contrary to the assertions of the Augusta school district, the First Amendment protects the rights of school employees to privately discuss faith with their coworkers on school grounds without government censorship. In addition, employers who discriminate against employees because they reference faith in their personal conversations can be held liable under Title VII.
For Immediate Release: May 16, 2017
Contact: Abigail Doty, firstname.lastname@example.org
Cell: 469-237-9102, Direct: 469-440-7598
Augusta School Department Punishes Employee for Telling Coworker, “I will pray for you”
First Liberty Institute and Eaton Peabody file charge of religious discrimination with EEOC after Toni Richardson is interrogated about her religious identity by her employer
Augusta, ME—Toni Richardson, an educational technician employed by the Augusta School Department, filed charges of religious discrimination and retaliation today with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) after being instructed to never use phrases like, “I will pray for you” and “you were in my prayers” in private conversations with coworkers. A copy of the charge is available here.
“What Augusta Public Schools did by punishing Toni for discussing her faith in a private conversation with a coworker is unconscionable,” said Timothy Woodcock of the Maine law firm Eaton Peabody. “The law is clear: employers cannot discriminate against employees who privately discuss their faith while at work.
Toni tried to privately encourage a coworker—with whom she attends church—by saying, “I will pray for you.” Even though the coworker thanked Toni, the Augusta Schools Department interrogated her, asking whether she had ever identified herself to coworkers as a Christian or privately told a colleague she was praying for him. Later, she received an official “coaching memorandum,” explaining that she could not use “phrases that integrate public and private belief systems” while at school. The memo specifically explains that she will face discipline or dismissal in the future for using phrases like, “I will pray for you” and “you were in my prayers” in private conversations with colleagues at work.
“I was shocked that my employer punished me for privately telling a coworker, ‘I will pray for you,’” Toni Richardson says, “I am afraid that I will lose my job if someone hears me privately discussing my faith with a coworker.”
“No one should be threatened with losing their job for privately telling a coworker, ‘I will pray for you,’” Jeremy Dys, Senior Counsel for First Liberty Institute, says. “School employees are not required to hide their faith from each other while on campus.”
To read the charge of discrimination, go to FirstLiberty.org/Richardson.
# # #
About First Liberty Institute
First Liberty Institute is the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedom for all Americans.
To arrange an interview, contact Abigail Doty at email@example.com or by calling 469-440-7598 (office) or 469-237-9102 (cell).
To download this press release, please click here.