AUGUSTA, Maine — An Augusta School Department employee believes she is being disciplined illegally for telling a fellow worker last year that she would pray for him.
Toni Richardson, who works as an educational technician at Cony High School, filed a complaint alleging discrimination based on religion with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that handles discrimination complaints, she announced Tuesday at the State House.
“I was shocked that my employer punished me for privately telling a co-worker, ‘I will pray for you,’” Richardson of Augusta said in a news release issued Tuesday. “I am afraid that I will lose my job if someone hears me privately discussing my faith with a co-worker.”
Richardson claims a “coaching memorandum” she received from the Augusta School Department instructed her not to discuss her Christian faith with co-workers at all and not to tell people on school property that she will pray for them or that they are in her prayers, her attorney Timothy Woodcock of Bangor said Wednesday.
The memorandum, which was linked to the news release, is one step before a disciplinary action and not intended to be placed in Richardson’s file, the attorney said.
But it said Richardson “will face discipline or dismissal in the future for using phrases like, ‘I will pray for you’ and ‘You are in my prayers,’ in private conversations with colleagues at work.”
The school department said it “recognizes the rights of employees to hold and express religious beliefs and it never was our intent to unlawfully restrict those rights,” according to a statement dated Tuesday.
The department “was very surprised and extremely disappointed” by the complaint because administrators thought they were working out the matter with Richardson to avoid litigation, the statement said.
“We remain strong believers that here in Maine important issues like this are best resolved through honest and open dialogue, and we believed that this is exactly what was happening — and it is so disappointing that our commitment evidently was not shared,” the unsigned statement, issued on district stationery, said.
But Woodcock said the deadline to file the EEOC complaint was Wednesday, and the district did not make its counter proposal until May 2, which did not allow time for negotiation.
Richardson is not asking for an accommodation so she can practice her religion, Woodcock said.
“This really falls more under the school’s censoring the content of her speech,” he said. “A similar sentiment could be expressed if someone said: ‘I’ll keep you in my thoughts.’ This is really happening because she chose words with religious content to express those sentiments.”
Richardson also is being represented by an attorney at the First Liberty Institute in Texas. The organization, which focuses on religious liberty issues, has been involved in many high profile cases including one in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prayer before public meetings was constitutional. The organization also represents an Oregon bakery that was fined by the state after the owners refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.