A school district in Augusta, Maine, has conceded that employees have constitutional rights that allow a worker to say to another in private, “I will pray for you.”
The development comes in a case in which the district threatened school technician Toni Richardson with discipline or even dismissal for saying the controversial words to another employee.
The dispute began in 2016 when officials got a report that she had made the statement to a friend, also a school employee, in private.
They immediately warned she could be punished or even fired for doing that again.
“I was shocked that my employer punished me for privately telling a co-worker I would pray for them,” she said at the time.
First Liberty, however, took up the case, and lawyer Jeremy Dys filed a complaint on Richardson’s behalf.
“Toni has had to self-censor herself, making sure she’s not using religious language,” Dys said.
“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 round her neck, then she could face discipline or even be terminated,” he said.
Now, however, First Liberty has confirmed that only a few months after a complaint was filed against the school with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the “school district sent Toni an updated coaching memorandum.”
“The school district withdrew any threats of disciplinary action against Toni and acknowledged the First Amendment rights of all school employees, including Toni, ‘to express religious beliefs or use faith-based language at school,'” First Liberty said.
“Further, the updated coaching memorandum said 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.”
Richardson said. “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. I hope my colleagues, and school employees across the country, will remember that the First Amendment still protects our private conversations at work.”
In a commentary at the Stream, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said school officials admitted “the rights of employees to hold and express religious beliefs.”
School officials said, “It never was our intent to unlawfully restrict those rights.”
Perkins said “it’s a sad commentary on America.”
Family Research Council’s Travis Weber pointed out, he said, “that trying to encourage someone by telling them you’re ‘praying for them’ would even draw a complaint.”
“But it’s also an encouraging example for Christians about what we can accomplish when we stand up with courage and conviction,” Perkins said.
“Richardson didn’t back down when the forces of political correctness came knocking. She knew her rights and demanded they be respected. We applaud First Liberty Institute and Richardson for their persistence. Let this be a warning to other school districts that try to intimidate teachers and other staff members of faith. Christians will fight back, and despite the claims of the left to the contrary, the Constitution is on their side.”
The complaint argued that the school’s actions showed hostility toward Richardson’s expression of faith and constituted “unlawful viewpoint discrimination.”
Added Dys: “No one should be threatened with losing their job for privately telling a coworker, ‘I will pray for you.’ School employees are not required to hide their faith.”