A Maine school worker is afraid to express her faith or even to wear religious jewelry, out of concern that her school would fire her. She had told one of her coworkers, who attended the same church, that she would pray for him. While he thanked her at the time, he later seemed to use the event as ammunition to retaliate against her. A letter from her employer explicitly forbade any religious phrases on school property, even in private.
“Stating, ‘I will pray for you’, and ‘you were in my prayers’ is not acceptable – even if that other person attends the same church as you,” the school declared in a letter last September, threatening disciplinary action for any further religious “interaction” that would be “deemed unprofessional.”
Toni Richardson, a special education technician at Cony High School in Augusta, Maine, started work on the same day as a male colleague. He reportedly expressed deep concerns about the job, and so she privately told him she would pray for him. At the time, he thanked Richardson for that.
The coworker started causing trouble in the classroom, and even told Richardson to her face that “you suck the oxygen out of the room when you walk into it,” and added, “There’s nothing you can do to change.” In one episode in September of last year, Richardson recalled her coworker putting his finger in her face, loudly saying, “I can’t believe you. You are rude. You are wrong!” all this in front of students.
She filed an official complaint against him the next day, and the day afterward she received a letter in response. Rather than addressing her concerns, the letter admonished her — for the comfort she gave her coworker.
“An investigation of your concerns indicated that you may have imposed some strong religious/spiritual belief system towards” the coworker, the letter admonished. It mentioned a 1947 Supreme Court case (Everson v. Board of Education) that applied the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to state law.
“In the context of the ‘separation of church and state,’ this case prohibits public school-sponsored religious expression,” the letter declared. “Therefore, in the future, it is imperative you do not use phrases that integrate public and private belief systems when in the public schools.”
Chillingly, the letter added, “Going forward, I expect when you disagree with a staff member, you will address it in a discrete and professional manner with no reference to your spiritual or religious beliefs.” According to her account of the situation, Richardson had not discussed religion in her complaint about her colleague’s actions, so this attack came as a complete surprise.
Merely mentioning prayers — privately — to a colleague who has attended the same church (and with whom Richardson served at church organized community dinners and in a nursing home ministry) is to be considered an “establishment of religion”?! The First Amendment doesn’t just say Congress shall make no law supporting one faith over another, it also defends “the free exercise” of religion as well.
On Tuesday, First Liberty Institute and the Maine law firm Eaton Peabody filed a charge of religious discrimination and retaliation against the Augusta School Department.
“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, declared in a press release. “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,” added Timothy Woodcock, an attorney with Eaton Peabody. “The law is clear: employers cannot discriminate against employees who privately discuss their faith while at work.”
As the complaint argues, the school’s hostile actions against Richardson constitute “unlawful viewpoint discrimination,” and employers who discriminate against religious employees who privately discuss their faith can be held liable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“I was shocked that my employer punished me for privately telling a coworker, ‘I will pray for you,'” Richardson herself said. “I am afraid that I will lose my job if someone hears me privately discussing my faith with a co-worker.”
In her complaint, Richardson noted that after she was questioned, she made a conscious decision to stop using language with any faith elements — even statements like “Praise the Lord.” She has also refrained from wearing religious jewelry, afraid the school would consider it a violation of the memo and fire or discipline her for expressing her faith.
The real danger of this situation is not just the school’s decision to discriminate against Richardson, but the message it sends to employees — that they can use any mention of religion as a weapon to retaliate against official complaints. If a teacher is not doing his job or is causing a ruckus, but the person who complains about his behavior has strong religious beliefs, he could use that fact as a cudgel not only to escape discipline, but to terrify anyone who questions him.
In any case, the fact that the school used the First Amendment to silence religious expression is terrifying, but it portrays a widespread misunderstanding of what the Constitution says. When groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sue to remove crosses atop Christmas trees, or Texas teachers are told to remove Charlie Brown posters because they violate the “separation of church and state,” they are following an interpretation of the First Amendment that actually undercuts its original purpose.
The First Amendment does explicitly declare that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” but this was attempting to avoid the kind of church-state connection that plagued Great Britain. Britain funds the Church of England with tax dollars. Americans rightly see this as something to avoid. But the First Amendment also supports the “free exercise” of religion.
Public expression of personal beliefs does not violate the kind of “separation of church and state” set up in the Constitution. It does, however, violate the free exercise thereof. The case of Toni Richardson highlights just how far-reaching this misunderstanding can go. If a school employee cannot privately tell a coworker who attends the same church that she will pray for him, what does “religious freedom” even mean?