A new report says school officials in Augusta, Maine, reprimanded a school worker in September after she offered unsolicited prayers to a coworker.
The Augusta School Department sent a "coaching memorandum" to Toni Richardson on Sept. 9 that recalled how she "did not feel comfortable working" with the coworker (name was redacted) because statements that the coworker made in a classroom were "challenging/almost aggressive in the way they were delivered," and that the coworker used an "aggressive tone."
The memo said an investigation found that Richardson may have "imposed some strong religious/spiritual belief system," and used the phrases "You were in my prayers" and "I will pray for you."
The coworker and Richardson attended the same church, Fox News reports. When the coworker was having a hard time at his new job, Richardson told the coworker that she would be praying for him. The two churchgoers had a falling out months later, and the coworker reportedly complained about the unsolicited prayers.
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The school district's memo implied that Richardson used the religious phrases during a disagreement with her coworker:
In the case of Everson vs. Board of Education, the Supreme Court applied the "Establishment Clause" of the First Amendment to the states. In the context of the "separation of church and state," this case prohibits public school-sponsored religious expression.
Therefore, in the future, it is imperative that you do not use phrases that integrate public and private belief systems when in the public schools. Going forward, I expect when you disagree with a staff member, you will address it in a discrete and professional manner with no reference to your spiritual or religious beliefs.
"I was shocked that my employer punished me for privately telling a coworker, 'I will pray for you,'" Richardson told Fox News. "I’m afraid I will lose my job if someone hears me privately discussing my faith with a coworker."
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John Pavlovitz wrote in Relevant Magazine how Christians often use the term "I'll pray for you" as a weapon, in which they are able to claim a high moral ground.
"It’s a really crafty tactic; a brilliant master stroke, because it packages terrible violence in an otherwise admirable wrapper," Pavlovitz wrote in March 2015. "The speaker gets to claim godliness, virtue and moral high ground, while simultaneously sucker-punching the hearer in the side of the head, and then running away and logging out."
After receiving the memo, Richardson contacted the First Liberty Institute, a Christian-based law firm.
First Liberty lawyer Jeremy Dys told Fox News: "No one should be threatened with losing their job for privately telling a coworker that they are going to pray for them. School employees are not required to hide their faith from each other while campus."
The Eaton Peabody law firm and the First Liberty Institute filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The complaint asserts that Richardson suffered religious discrimination and retaliation; EEOC complaints often precede lawsuits.