A school worker says she no longer has to tell her colleagues that she will pray for them.
AUGUSTA – A woman who accused the Augusta school department of religious discrimination last spring now says school officials responded adequately to her complaint and withdrew the order not to tell colleagues when ‘she would pray for them.
The wife, Toni Richardson, works as a special education technician at Cony High School. Last May, she announced that she was filing a complaint about her treatment by the school department with the Commission for Equal Employment Opportunities, the federal agency that enforces civil rights cases involving the discrimination at work.
Richardson, who announced his complaint at a State House press conference, was represented by the First Liberty Institute, a Texan group that describes itself as “the country’s largest legal organization” focused on protecting human rights. religious freedom.
The case was widely publicized, catching the attention of Franklin Graham, a prominent Christian evangelist who wrote about it on Facebook. Her post, which advised people to contact the Augusta school board, has been shared over 16,000 times.
But an Augusta School Department lawyer questioned the tactics employed by Richardson’s legal team, saying school officials were committed to working with Richardson to resolve the disagreement and were blinded by the attention he had received.
In her written complaint, Richardson said she was disciplined after she tried to offer words of encouragement to a colleague, who also attends her church, telling her that she would pray for him. She said she was “questioned” by school officials, who sent her a “coaching note” telling her what she can and cannot say at school.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission declined to review Richardson’s case, but his lawyers continued to work with the school department, which agreed to make changes to the memorandum he sent them. , they said in a press release Thursday afternoon.
The department removed language that prohibited Richardson from making statements such as “I will pray for you” to her colleagues and replaced it with a statement that she can make those statements outside of hearing students, has said Richardson’s legal team.
The new memorandum also removed the threat that Richardson would be “subject to disciplinary action and / or possibly termination” if she had “further interactions deemed unprofessional by the administration,” her lawyers said in the statement.
“The Supreme Court has been very clear on this: neither students nor teachers lose their First Amendment rights at the school gate,” said Jeremy Dys, deputy general counsel for First Liberty, in the communicated. “The Constitution protects teachers like Toni who do not and should not have to censor their religious beliefs in private conversations at work.”
Richardson was not available for an interview on Thursday.
In the press release, she said, “I love my job of helping students with special needs succeed, and I’m happy that I don’t have to sacrifice my First Amendment rights to be here. I hope my colleagues and employees in schools across the country will remember that the First Amendment still protects our private conversations at work. “
School department attorney Peter Lowe declined to provide a copy of the adjusted score on the grounds that it was part of an employment record, deemed confidential by Maine law, or to comment on the specific changes described by Richardson’s lawyers.
“We have entered into very productive discussions with our employee representatives and are confident this matter has been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction,” Deputy Superintendent Donna Madore said in a voicemail message left with the Kennebec Journal.
Lowe has criticized the way Richardson’s lawyers have made his case public.
“Just because this has been resolved doesn’t mean the school department considers it did anything wrong, and of course the EEOC dismissed the complaint,” Lowe said. “It would certainly support the perspective of the school department. But the school department is more interested in solving problems and working with employees, so it makes sense to find a satisfactory solution.
STRESSFUL FOR SCHOOL STAFF
As a result of the publicity surrounding the case, school employees received “highly inappropriate and profane communications,” Lowe added. “It was very stressful for the staff, and very unhappy and unnecessary because the school department was already engaged in discussions to address the employee’s concerns.”
Kimberly Martin, president of the Augusta school board, declined to say whether she or other board members had received any comments regarding Richardson’s case.
But she wrote a response to Franklin Graham’s Facebook post, in which he urged “Christians to come to school boards across the country – to stop this kind of nonsense.”
“Maybe Christians shouldn’t pass judgment on a situation that has only been shared from one point of view (and cannot be shared from another point of view because of privacy laws. employees …), “Martin wrote on the social network. “I AM a Christian and I am also the chair of this particular school board. … May I say, it’s “great” to have people who know nothing about me who pass judgment on my personal faith (and that of my fellow board members).
Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, DC, said he couldn’t comment on the merits of Richardson’s complaint without hearing more about the school department’s position.
But he questioned the need for the First Liberty Institute to publicize the case so much.
JUSTIFIED LEGAL MEASURES
When his organization works with schools to resolve complaints about the separation of church and state, Luchenitser said, “We try to resolve these kinds of situations quietly, as long as the school district is working in good faith for them. to resolve. Richardson’s lawyers, he continued, “went to issue a press release, and they went to file a federal complaint. One wonders if they are really trying to achieve the best outcome for their client or if they are trying to use this situation to publicize their causes. “
But Dys and Tim Woodcock, a lawyer from Maine who represented Richardson, said it was necessary to take the legal steps they took.
While it’s common for the EEOC to not follow up on complaints, Richardson would have needed that determination to file a civil complaint against the school department, a step she was ultimately able to avoid, according to Woodcock.
And Dys pointed to the changes in the new memo that he believes the school department would not have been willing to make without the EEOC complaint.
The original memo stated that “school-sponsored religious expression” is prohibited under the First Amendment clause, but the new version suggests Richardson’s right to make comments such as “God bless you. To colleagues, away from the student audience, is supported by the First Amendment, Dys said.
“We’re about a year old when this original note came out,” he said. “If we hadn’t taken the step of forcing the problem through the EEOC, they never would have done it on purpose. … If the school department suddenly thought it was a protected speech, why didn’t it bring it to our attention in the first place? ”
Charles Eichacker can be contacted at 621-5642 or: