Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

Educator wins fight over on-campus faith discussions

Religious Liberty | School administrators agree they can’t fire someone for offering to pray for a co-worker
by Leigh Jones
Posted 11/14/17, 01:22 pm

Administrators at a Maine school district have dropped their bid to force a special education teacher to remain silent about her faith while on campus. In a new “coaching memorandum” sent to Toni Richardson last week, officials with the Augusta School Department acknowledged employees’ First Amendment right to privately discuss their religious beliefs with co-workers.

Employees can say things like “God bless you,” or “I am praying for you,” as long as students aren’t around.

“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,” Richardson said in a statement issued by her attorneys at First Liberty Institute. “I hope my colleagues, and school employees across the country, will remember that the First Amendment still protects our private conversations at work.”

In September 2016, an administrator asked Richardson if she had made any “faith-based statements” while at school, including telling co-workers she was a Christian, offering to pray for them, or even saying something vague like, “That’s a blessing.” Several days earlier, Richardson offered to pray for a co-worker during a private conversation after students left the classroom. The co-worker, who attended the same church as Richardson, thanked her for her support.

Despite the seemingly positive nature of the interaction, the school administrator told Richardson her statements violated the First Amendment and could get her fired if repeated. Fearing for her job, Richardson filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The school district’s actions violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which forbids discrimination on the basis of religion, the suit argued.

Timothy Woodcock, an attorney with the Maine law firm Eaton Peabody who represented Richardson, noted the importance of defending every American’s religious liberty: “Toni’s case should be a reminder to employers everywhere that you cannot discriminate against employees who privately discuss their faith at work.”

Associated Press/Photo by Juan Antonio Labreche Associated Press/Photo by Juan Antonio Labreche A person chalks a pro-life message on a sidewalk

Free speech win for pro-life students in California

A pro-life student group at Fresno State University won its fight last week against a professor who told a student she had no free speech rights on a college campus.

Students for Life sued professor William Gregory Thatcher after he scrubbed out a pro-life message chalked on the sidewalk and told student leader Bernadette Tasy, “College campuses are not free speech areas.”

Tasy, who heads Fresno State Students for Life, got permission from school administrators in May to chalk pro-life messages near the school library. Shortly after she finished her work, a group of students began rubbing out the messages, telling her Thatcher encouraged them to do it.

When Thatcher appeared at the scene, he began to lecture Tasy on her free speech rights, telling her she could only talk about her pro-life beliefs in the school’s free speech zone. Turns out, Fresno State eliminated the unconstitutional zone two years ago, and Tasy has the right to say what she wants at school.

Rather than take the lawsuit to court, Thatcher settled last week, agreeing to pay Tasy and another student $1,000 each and take First Amendment training provided by Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). He also agreed to pay $15,000 in attorneys fees.

“Today’s college students will be tomorrow’s legislators, judges, educators, and voters,” ADF attorney Casey Mattox said. “That’s why it’s so important that university professors model the First Amendment values they are supposed to be teaching to students, and why it should disturb everyone that this Fresno State professor, like so many other university officials across the country, is communicating to a generation that the Constitution doesn’t matter.” —L.J. University of Notre Dame

A new chapter in Notre Dame’s birth control fight

University of Notre Dame employees and students will not lose their free birth control after all. Last week, the Catholic college announced it would no longer provide contraceptives through a third-party administrator after the Trump administration ended the Obamacare requirement that all employee health plans cover the drugs. But two days later, university officials said the third party, Meritain Health/OptumRx, would continue to provide contraceptives, free of charge, even though it has no expectation for reimbursement from the federal government.

Notre Dame joined other Christian nonprofits to fight the contraceptive and abortifacient mandate, arguing the government had no right to make it pay for something the Catholic Church teaches against. In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled closely held for-profit companies could not be forced to provide the coverage if their owners had a religious objection, but the question of how that principle applied to nonprofit groups remained unresolved before President Donald Trump took office. Shortly after his inauguration, Trump rescinded the mandate, ending the yearslong court battle. Now a new battle starts: Three Notre Dame students have joined a lawsuit objecting to the Trump administration’s policy change. —L.J.

Pro-abortion discrimination?

A nurse is suing Duke University over its requirement that all medical professionals working in its hospital emergency department be willing to participate in abortions. Sara Pedro worked as a nurse in New York for eight years before moving to North Carolina to take a job with Duke. During her two-week orientation, a trainer informed Pedro that Duke did not allow any religious exemptions to participating in abortions, a procedure frequently done in the hospital’s emergency department. Pedro applied for an exemption anyway and alleges Duke employees targeted her for discrimination in order to force her to quit. The lawsuit, filed in federal court by attorneys with Thomas More Law Center, claims Duke violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by discriminating against Pedro on the basis of religion. “At its heart, this case presents a simple yet important question: Must a devout Catholic abandon fundamental tenets of her faith if she wishes to be employed as a nurse at Duke University Hospital? Despite the fact that defendant Duke has answered ‘yes’ to this question, federal and state civil rights laws say otherwise,” the lawsuit states. —L.J.

Kim Davis seeks reelection in rural Kentucky

Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who made national headlines for refusing to issue marriage licenses in 2015 to same-sex couples, plans to seek reelection in 2018. Davis spent several days in jail over her stance, which stemmed from her belief that marriage is between one man and one woman. At the time, Kentucky marriage licenses included the clerk’s name, which Davis argued amounted to a stamp of approval. The state legislature later changed the license requirement to remove the clerk’s name. Davis plans to run as a Republican although Rowan County is a Democratic stronghold. The local Democratic Party head said no one has yet announced plans to run against her. —L.J.

New home for Ten Commandments monument

The Ten Commandments monument in Bloomfield, N.M., will get a new home after supporters lost their appeal to have the U.S. Supreme Court hear their case. Kevin Mauzy, founder of the Four Corners Historical Monument Project, told the local newspaper the granite monument will move from the city hall lawn to the First Baptist Church of Bloomfield, chosen for its central location in the community. Two city residents sued over the monument in 2011, alleging it violated the U.S. Constitution’s ban on government endorsement of religion. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with lower courts, which ruled for the plaintiffs. Last month the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case. —L.J.

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Leigh Jones

Leigh is acting managing editor for WORLD Radio. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate who spent six years as a newspaper reporter in Texas before joining WORLD. Leigh also co-wrote Infinite Monster: Courage, Hope, and Resurrection in the Face of One of America's Largest Hurricanes. She resides with her husband and daughter in Houston, Texas.

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