A school board in Maine has reportedly withdrawn threats to fire an employee who was reprimanded last year for offering to pray for a co-worker.
Toni Richardson, a special education technician, lodged an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEOC) complaint against the Augusta School Department in May this year, after district officials threatened her with disciplinary action, or even dismissal, for saying "I will pray for you" to a co-worker.
"I was shocked that my employer punished me for privately telling a co-worker I would pray for them," Richardson said at the time.
First Liberty Institute's Jeremy Dys, who filed a complaint on Richardson's behalf, explained that his client had to "self-censor," in order to make sure she is not using religious language.
"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," Dys went on to say.
According to Christian News Network, Richardson's ordeal began when she expressed concern over the behavior of a co-worker, whom she described as being marked by frustration and "mood swings."
Richardson noted that the co-worker had previously shown appreciation for her advice and support, but she said that she found man's attitude to be hostile toward her at times. In one occasion, the man reportedly told her that she pulled "all the oxygen out of the room" by her mere presence.
After noticing that her co-worker was experiencing difficulty transitioning to the job, Richardson told him privately that she would pray for him. She noted that she knew that the co-worker was a member of her church as she had worked alongside him at several church events.
"So, as we were leaving for the day, I told him that I would pray for him. He said, 'Thanks. That means a lot to me,'" she recalled.
However, Richardson said that she considered quitting her job because of her co-worker's "confrontational and aggressive" demeanor toward her.
She soon became the focus of questioning after the co-worker complained to district officials about her comments. After admitting that she offered to pray for her co-worker, she was told that her action had violated the First Amendment and she was provided with a memo warning that any further violations could result in discipline or dismissal.
Richardson then filed a complaint with the EEOC after First Liberty attorneys failed to reach a settlement with the school.
A few months after lodging the complaint, First Liberty confirmed that the school district has now acknowledged the First Amendment Rights of all school employees. On Nov. 10, the district issued an updated memorandum acknowledging Richardson's "protected First Amendment right to privately discuss religion among her coworkers."
"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," Richardson said in a statement.
"I hope my colleagues, and school employees across the country, will remember that the First Amendment still protects our private conversations at work," she added.