A Christian pastor lost his bus driving job recently because he led kids in prayers, even after receiving warnings not to. The pastor argues his First Amendment rights have been violated.
George Nathaniel, 49, of Richfield, was in his second year as a school bus driver for the Burnsville – Eagan –Savage district in Minnesota. He says he made it no secret what his other job was.
“I let them know I am a pastor and I am going to pray,” he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Still, after receiving a complaint from the district about the prayers, the bus company, Durham School Services, gave Nathaniel a warning and assigned him two new bus routes.
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Nathaniel continued to lead prayers and the bus company sent him a termination letter Oct. 30 stating, “There have been more complaints of religious material on the bus as well as other complaints regarding performance. In accordance with the previous final written warning you received your employment is hereby terminated.”
But the firing didn’t sit well with the pastor, who argues, “To fire a bus driver for praying for the safety of the children” just isn’t right.
Teresa Nelson, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota says while Nathaniel has the right to pray during his own time, he violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by leading “a captive audience of kids on a school bus” into prayer.
The First Amendment's Establishment Clause prohibits government from establishing a religion. In a 1962 case, the Supreme Court ruled that it's unconstitutional for public school to lead or encourage students in prayer. A series of court decisions led to any representative of a school to lead prayers.
But the pastor says the praying was optional.
“We start out with a song,” Nathaniel said. “Then each person will pray if they want to pray. If they don’t want to pray, they don’t have to pray. Then I will pray and ask them if they want to join me in prayer. Just give them something constructive and positive to go to school with.”
While Durham spokeswoman Molly Hart told the Star Tribune “the company does not have a specific policy on the subject of prayer,” the school district does have a say in the matter.
“We do consider the school bus driver to be an extension of the school day when it pertains to student behavior and support,” Ruth Dunn, communications director for the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District.
Nathaniel, who drove school buses in Wisconsin and Georgia prior to coming to Minnesota, says he’s always prayed with school children.
“We got to get Christians to be able to be Christians and not have to be closet Christians,” he said. “You have something good, you are going to share it with somebody.”
Source: Minneapolis Star Tribune, Legal Information Institute