'I will pray for you,' draws personnel warning
Attorneys for Toni Richardson, an educational technician with the Augusta (Maine) School Department, are awaiting a response from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) regarding the complaint filed May 16. First Liberty Institute of Plano, Texas and the Maine law firm Eaton Peabody filed the complaint May 16 regarding the September 2016 incident at Cony School.
"We want to make sure that teachers and employees everywhere understand that you can certainly talk about your faith in private conversations at work," First Liberty Senior Counsel Jeremy Dys told Baptist Press, "and that no employee, whether at a school district or elsewhere, should be punished or be threatened with dismissal for engaging in private conversations that say something like, 'I'm praying for you.'"
The coworker, a fellow member of a Baptist church in Augusta where Richardson leads the nursing home ministry, thanked her for her prayers, First Liberty said in a press release. But an Augusta Schools administrator "interrogated" Richardson, "asking whether she had ever identified herself to coworkers as a Christian or privately told a colleague she was praying for him," First Liberty said.
Four days later, the school told Richardson in a coaching memorandum that "she could not use 'phrases that integrate public and private belief systems' while at school," and threatened her with discipline or termination. The school cited the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, commonly known as separation of church and state.
"I was shocked that my employer punished me for privately telling a coworker, 'I will pray for you,'" Richardson said in the press release. "I am afraid that I will lose my job if someone hears me privately discussing my faith with a coworker." According to the memorandum, the document would not be placed in Richardson's personnel file, and Richardson has subsequently received "all excellent marks" on an annual employee evaluation, Dys said.
The Augusta case and others typically arise out of a misunderstanding of the constitutionally guaranteed separation of church and state, Dys said.
"I don't know that it is often intentional that people are trying to punish people for their religious beliefs, but more often they've bought into this idea that there is a so-called separation of church and state which requires them to stamp out any public displays of religion," Dys told BP. "What we have in fact, though, is a constitution that provides neutrality by the government towards religion. And instead … we're seeing an increasing hostility towards the free exercise of religion by state actors."
Michigan Bible class
In a related story, a civil rights group cited the Establishment Clause in its complaint against a Bible class taught off campus once a month for students of two elementary schools in Freemont, Mich.
Fremont Public Schools cancelled the last session of the Bible Release Time class that was to meet tonight (May 22) at Freemont Wesleyan Church, school superintendent Ken Haggart said in media reports.
The school will make changes in the program to make sure it complies with the law, Haggart told Freemont-area ABC affiliate WZZM-TV May 18, but said he's confident the program will return in the fall of the 2017-2018 school year. The class is allowed by Michigan law, the school said in class permission slip sent to parents.
The class meets eight times a year, according to the flyer, with sessions scheduled monthly since Oct. 17, 2016. Fourth graders at Pathfinder Elementary School and Daisy Brook Elementary School are invited to participate in the optional class.
The Michigan Association of Civil Rights Activists (MACRA), a group founded in 2014 to defend the Bill of Rights, complained that the program was discriminatory because it promotes one religion over another, Haggart told WZZM.
On its Facebook page, MACRA said it would monitor at least one of the schools, Daisybrook Elementary, to guard against the program's return.