Toni Richardson, an employee who works at Cony School in Augusta, Maine, received quite the surprise from the school’s administration one day after a private discussion with a colleague.
Richardson’s colleague was going through a difficult time, and so Toni did what any good Christian would do: She offered to pray for him. In a subsequent memorandum she received from the school, she was banned from ever telling a colleague “I will pray for you” or “you were in my prayers”.
The memo explained that an “investigation” was conducted due to her actions, and it was allegedly discovered that she “may have imposed some strong religious/spiritual belief” on her colleague. It even went so far as to drum up an absurd interpretation of the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause, implying that by simply offering prayers to her colleague was a violation of federal law.
However, although Richardson faced extreme opposition due to her faith, she is not having to confront it all by herself. The First Liberty Institute, a legal organization that protects religious freedom, filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on her behalf.
The complaint — filed jointly with local Eaton Peabody law firm — claimed that Richardson is undergoing religious discrimination at work, an actual violation of the First Amendment. The complaint reads, in part, that the “First Amendment protects such conversations from government censorship and Title VII holds liable employers like the Augusta School Department for discriminating against employees having such conversations.”
First Liberty Institute Senior Counsel Jeremy Dys commented on the the case, saying, “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 from each other while on campus.”
On his Facebook page, Rev. Franklin Graham weighed into the discussion once it reached national attention. “Can you imagine being disciplined for showing Christian compassion and concern? I’m sorry, but that’s exactly what Christians are supposed to do,” he said. And he’s right, of course. It is a core tenant of the Christian faith to love and encourage others, and it’s wrong to suppress anyone’s ability to exercise their religious beliefs in this way.
“I was shocked that my employer punished me for privately telling a co-worker, ‘I will pray for you,’” Richardson said in a statement, according to the Bangor Daily News. “I am afraid that I will lose my job if someone hears me privately discussing my faith with a co-worker.”
It is clear that the school better have a good attorney, but even that likely won’t help them. Through their nonsensical interpretation of the First Amendment, the school has actually violated one of its primary purposes: to protect religious expression from government censorship. As Fox News personality and defender of religious liberty, Todd Starnes, so aptly put it in his report on the case, “First Liberty is like a pit bull going after a pork chop – they are relentless.”
It is widely believed that Richardson will win her case and the school will learn a valuable lesson.