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Augusta ed tech reaches agreement with school department over discussing faith at work

Toni Richardson, an ed-tech employed by the Augusta School District, filed charges of religious discrimination and retaliation with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (WGME)

AUGUSTA (BDN) -- An Augusta School Department employee who earlier this year alleged she was discriminated against after offering to pray for a fellow employee who attended her church says the matter has been settled.

Toni Richardson, who works as an educational technician at Cony High School, claimed in May that a “coaching memorandum” she received from the school instructed her not to discuss her Christian faith with co-workers and not to tell people on school property that she will pray for them or that they are in her prayers.

An updated coaching memorandum was announced Friday, a school holiday, at a press conference at the Augusta office of the Christian Civic League of Maine. It withdrew any threats of disciplinary action against Richardson and acknowledged the First Amendment rights of all school employees, including Richardson, “to express religious beliefs or use faith-based language at school,” according to a press release issued by the league and the First Liberty Institute in Texas, which also represented Richardson.

The new memorandum also said comments such as “God bless you” or “I am praying for you” were allowed when made to co-workers outside the hearing of students, the release said.

Richardson said Friday that she was pleased with the decision.

“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,” she said. “I hope my colleagues, and school employees across the country, will remember that the First Amendment still protects our private conversations at work.”

The memorandum is one step before a disciplinary action and not intended to be placed in Richardson’s employment file, according to her attorney, Timothy Woodcock of Bangor.

The school department’s attorney, Peter Lowe of Portland, said Monday in an email that the concerns Richardson originally raised were resolved “by clarifying the wording in the non-disciplinary counseling memorandum that was given to her last year.”

Lowe said the problem could have been addressed without “the disruption and expense caused by the very public filing of a complaint earlier this year.”

Richardson appeared at a press conference in May to announce that her attorneys had filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about the original coaching memorandum. The EEOC dismissed that complaint, Lowe said.

“The fact that the school department worked to resolve the concerns does not mean that we ever believed that there was merit to the EEOC complaint, and our position was validated by the dismissal of the complaint,” the school department’s attorney said.

Richardson’s attorney said Friday that her case should serve as a reminder to all Maine employers.

“It is important for each of us to defend the religious liberty of every American,” Woodcock said. “Toni’s case should be a reminder to employers everywhere that you cannot discriminate against employees who privately discuss their faith at work.”

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