A Maine school employee has filed a religious discrimination complaint against the Augusta School Department after she was reportedly reprimanded in September for telling a co-worker that she would pray for him.
Toni Richardson, an educational technician at Cony High School, filed her complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal agency tasked with enforcing civil rights cases involving workplace discrimination.
"I was shocked that my employer punished me for privately telling a co-worker, 'I will pray for you,'" Richardson stated in a news release published on Tuesday. "I am afraid that I will lose my job if someone hears me privately discussing my faith with a co-worker," she added.
According to the complaint, Richardson expressed concern for a new member of her special education team when she noticed that he was having difficulty transitioning to the new job.
At one point, she tried to offer words of encouragement to her co-worker, who also attends her church and told him that she would pray for him.
According to Christian News Network, Richardson told school officials during a meeting that she felt uncomfortable working with the new employee because of his "confrontational and aggressive" behavior, which was sometimes displayed in front of students.
She was later questioned by the school officials, who gave her a "coaching memorandum," telling her not to discuss her faith with co-workers.
"In the future, it is imperative you do not use phrases that integrate public and private belief systems when in public schools," the memorandum stated.
The officials noted that the memorandum is not a disciplinary action, and it will not be included in Richardson's file. But the document warned that she "will face discipline or dismissal in the future for using phrases like, 'I will pray for you' and 'You are in my prayers,' in private conversations with colleagues at work."
In her complaint, Richardson is requesting the school officials to throw out the memorandum and tell her co-workers that they would not face disciplinary action for using religious language.
The officials said in a written statement that they are working with Richardson to address her concerns and that they were "surprised and extremely disappointed" that she filed a legal complaint to the EEOC.
Richardson is being represented by the Texas-based First Liberty Institute, a legal organization that specializes in cases involving religious freedom.
Jeremy Dys, an attorney from the First Liberty Institute, noted that even though officials said the memo would not go in Richardson's personnel file, the threat of dismissal suggested that it could go in her file.
"All I'm asking for is for the memo to be taken away. It makes me feel nervous and scared," Richardson said in brief remarks at the State House.