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VICTORY: Maine School District Acknowledges Right of Employee to Say, “I Will Pray for You”

Augusta School Department recognizes the First Amendment right of Toni Richardson, previously threatened with termination for offering to pray for a colleague.

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November 16, 2017

Last week,  the Augusta, Maine School Department acknowledged Toni Richardson’s First Amendment right to privately discuss faith in conversations with coworkers.

This acknowledgment came in an updated memorandum. Richardson, a First Liberty Institute client and special education employee, had been reprimanded for telling a coworker—who at the time attended the same church—“I will pray for you.”

“The Supreme Court has been very clear on this: Neither students nor teachers lose their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gate,” Jeremy Dys, Deputy General Counsel for First Liberty Institute, stated in a press release. “The Constitution protects employees like Toni who do not and should not have to censor their religious beliefs in private conversations at work.”

The school district withdrew any threats of disciplinary action and acknowledged that the First Amendment protects the rights of school employees.

“It is important for each of us to defend the religious liberty of every American,” stated Timothy Woodcock of the Maine law firm Eaton Peabody. He was also Toni’s lead counsel, and a volunteer attorney working in conjunction with First Liberty. “Toni’s case should be a reminder to employers everywhere that you cannot discriminate against employees who privately discuss their faith at work.”


JOB THREATENED FOR OFFERING TO PRAY FOR COWORKER

Toni Richardson’s case attracted national attention earlier this year.

Richardson is a special education employee in Augusta, Maine. She works as a Functional Skills Educational Technician at an Augusta high school. She is also a devout Christian.

In a private conversation last year, Toni sought to encourage a coworker by telling him she would pray for him. The coworker—who attended her church—thanked her at the time.

School records show that Toni is an exemplary employee. However, in September 2016, a school official asked her whether she told anyone at the school that she was a Christian or that she would pray for them. In addition, the school official even asked whether she had made “faith-based statement[s]” such as “That’s a blessing.”

Soon after this meeting, the school sent Toni an official, written “coaching memorandum”  which warned that telling people she would pray for them—even fellow church attenders—was “not acceptable.” In its rationale, the memo invoked the “separation of church and state”  and stated that “in the future, it is imperative you do not use phrases that integrate public and private belief systems when in the public schools.”

The memo threatened Toni with “disciplinary action and/or possibly dismissal” if she continued to discuss faith with coworkers.


FIRST LIBERTY FILES COMPLAINT AGAINST SCHOOL DISTRICT

Toni retained First Liberty Institute to represent her. On May 16, 2017, First Liberty and Eaton Peabody filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The complaint, filed on Toni’s behalf, charged the school district with religious discrimination and retaliation.

However, with the updated memo issued last week, the school district has withdrawn any threats of disciplinary action, reversed course from the original memo, and acknowledged that the First Amendment protects the rights of Toni and other school employees “to express religious beliefs or use faith-based language at school.”

The school district also stated, “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.”

“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,” Toni stated. “I hope my colleagues, and school employees across the country, will remember that the First Amendment still protects our private conversations at work.” 


SCHOOL EMPLOYEES HAVE FIRST AMENDMENT RIGHTS

School employees like Toni do have religious freedom rights, and they do not lose these rights simply by stepping onto school property. In fact, federal law bans employers—including school districts—from discriminating against employees on religious grounds.

First Liberty is dedicated to protecting students, teachers, and other school employees from religious censorship and discrimination. For more information about religious freedom in the public schools, download First Liberty’s free Religious Liberty Protection Kit for Students and Teachers.

News and Commentary is brought to you by First Liberty’s team of writers and legal experts.