AUGUSTA — A woman who accused the Augusta School Department of religious discrimination last spring now says that school officials have responded adequately to her complaint, withdrawing an order that she not tell fellow employees she’ll pray for them.

The woman, Toni Richardson, works as a special education technician at Cony High School. Last May, she announced that she was filing a complaint about her treatment by the School Department with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that enforces civil rights cases involving workplace discrimination.

Richardson, who announced her complaint during a news conference at the State House, has been represented by the First Liberty Institute, a Texas group that describes itself as “the largest legal organization in the nation” focused on protecting religious liberty.

The case was widely publicized, catching the attention of Franklin Graham, a prominent Christian evangelist who wrote about it on Facebook. His post, which advised people to contact the Augusta school board, was shared more than 16,000 times.

But an attorney for the Augusta School Department questioned the tactics employed by Richardson’s legal team, saying that school officials were committed to working with Richardson to resolve the disagreement and blindsided by the attention it received.

In her written complaint, Richardson said she was disciplined after trying to offer words of encouragement to a co-worker, who also attends her church, by telling him she would pray for him. She said she was “interrogated” by school officials, who sent her a “coaching memorandum” telling her what she can and cannot say in school.


The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission declined to consider Richardson’s case, but her attorneys kept working with the School Department, which agreed to make changes in the memorandum it sent to her, they said in a news release Thursday afternoon.

The department removed language that barred Richardson from making statements such as “I will pray for you” to her colleagues and replaced it with an affirmation that she can make those statements outside the hearing of students, Richardson’s legal team said.

The new memorandum also eliminated a threat that Richardson would be “subject to disciplinary action and/or possibly dismissal” if she had “any additional interactions that are deemed unprofessional by administration,” her attorneys said in the release.

“The Supreme Court has been very clear on this: neither students nor teachers lose their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gate,” said Jeremy Dys, deputy general counsel for First Liberty, in the release. “The Constitution protects teachers like Toni who do not and should not have to censor their religious beliefs in private conversations at work.”

Richardson was not available for an interview Thursday.

In the news release, she’s quoted as saying, “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. I hope my colleagues, and school employees across the country, will remember that the First Amendment still protects our private conversations at work.”


An attorney for the School Department, Peter Lowe, declined to provide a copy of the adjusted memo, on the grounds that it’s part of an employment record deemed confidential by Maine law, or to comment on the specific changes described by Richardson’s attorneys.

“We’ve initiated very productive discussions with our employee’s representatives, and we’re confident that this matter has been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction,” said one school official, Assistant Superintendent Donna Madore, in a voice mail message left with the Kennebec Journal.

Lowe did criticize the manner in which Richardson’s attorneys publicized her case, even as school officials were trying “in good faith” to “clear up any misunderstanding” about the original memo.

“The fact that it’s been resolved doesn’t mean the School Department is taking the position that it did anything wrong, and of course the EEOC, in fact, dismissed the complaint,” Lowe said. “That would certainly support the School Department’s perspective. But the School Department is more interested in problem solving and working with employees, so reaching a satisfactory solution makes sense.”

Because of the publicity around the case, school employees have received “some highly inappropriate and profane communications,” Lowe added. “This was very stressful for staff, and very unfortunate and unnecessary because the School Department was already engaged in discussions to address the employee’s concerns.”

Kimberly Martin, chairwoman of the Augusta School Board, declined to answer whether asked whether she or other board members have received feedback related to Richardson’s case.


But she did write a response to Franklin Graham’s post on Facebook, in which he urged “Christians to run for school boards across the country — to put an end to this kind of nonsense.”

“Maybe Christians should not pass judgment over a situation that has only been shared from one perspective (and can not be shared from the other perspective because of employee confidentiality laws …),” Martin wrote on the social network. “I AM a Christian and am also the Chair of this particular School Board… can I say, it feels ‘great’ to have people who know nothing about me making judgments on my (and my fellow Board Members’) personal faith.”

Alex Luchenitser, the associate legal director at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, an organization in Washington D.C., said he couldn’t comment on the merits of Richardson’s complaint without knowing more about the School Department’s position. But he did question the necessity of the First Liberty Institute drawing so much publicity to the case.

When his organization works with schools to resolve complaints involving the separation of church and state, Luchenitser said, “we try to resolve these kinds of situations quietly, as long as the school district is working in good faith to resolve it.” Richardson’s attorneys, he continued, “went and issued a press release, and they went and filed a federal complaint. It makes you wonder whether they really are trying to get the best result for their client, or trying to use this situation to publicize their causes.”

But Dys and Tim Woodcock, a Maine attorney who represented Richardson, said that it was necessary to take the legal steps they did.

While it’s common for the EEOC to not proceed with complaints, Richardson would have needed that determination to file a civil complaint against the School Department, a step she was eventually able to avoid, according to Woodcock.


And Dys pointed to changes in the new memo he thinks the School Department would not have been willing to make without the EEOC complaint.

The original memo stated that “school-sponsored religious expression” is barred under the establishment clause of the First Amendment, but the new version suggests that Richardson’s right to make comments such as “God bless you” to co-workers, away from the hearing of students, is supported by the First Amendment, Dys said.

“We’re about a year past when that original memo came out,” he said. “Had we not taken the step of forcing the issue through the EEOC, they would never have voluntarily done that. … If the School Department all of sudden thinks this was protected speech, why didn’t it bring that to our attention in the first place?”

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

Twitter: @ceichacker


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