It was a small sentence —"I will pray for you"— but it meant big trouble for Cony High School technician Toni Richardson. When Richardson offered that comfort to another Christian on staff in private, she was hauled before school officials and warned not to utter a word about her faith again.
District officials kicked off the controversy last year by telling Richardson that she could "face discipline or dismissal in the future" if she expressed her faith so openly again. "I was shocked that my employer punished me for privately telling a co-worker I would pray for them," she told reporters at the time.
First Liberty Institute's Jeremy Dys, who filed a complaint on Richardson's behalf, explained that it had been a hard 12 months for Richardson since then. "This entire year Toni has had to self-censor herself, making sure she's not using religious language. ... She's even had to refrain from wearing jewelry that has a cross on it, because if someone were to overhear this private conversation or see that religious imagery round her neck, then she could face discipline or even be terminated."
Fortunately, after a yearlong clash over religious freedom, school officials have apparently had second thoughts about their attacks. Late last week, our friends at First Liberty proclaimed victory, announcing that the district had officially walked back its threat to Richardson and issued a new memorandum giving her and others the right to make faith-based statements—without fear of school discipline.
Augusta administrators said they recognized "the rights of employees to hold and express religious beliefs and it never was our intent to unlawfully restrict those rights."
It's a sad commentary on America, Family Research Council's Travis Weber pointed out, that trying to encourage someone by telling them you're "praying for them" would even draw a complaint. But it's also an encouraging example for Christians about what we can accomplish when we stand up with courage and conviction.
Richardson didn't back down when the forces of political correctness came knocking. She knew her rights and demanded they be respected. We applaud First Liberty Institute and Richardson for their persistence. Let this be a warning to other school districts that try to intimidate teachers and other staff members of faith. Christians will fight back, and despite the claims of the left to the contrary, the Constitution is on their side.
Tony Perkins is president of the Family Research Council.