A half-century of legal precedent forbids any school-sponsored prayer, whether led by teachers or students, in the school setting, while protecting the right of individuals to pray privately. Students in a public school have to be there: they are what is called a “captive audience.” However, we can’t always expect persons who work in public education to support the law or even be aware of it. There is a case working through the courts in Mississippi right now in which mandatory school assemblies were called for the express purpose of Christian prosyletizing to students. And this particular instance involved a literally captive audience — one of the plaintiffs, among other students, were physically prevented from leaving by school officials. As anyone who has passing familiarity with the atheist blogosphere will attest, this happens much, much more often than people think. It even happens in my neck of the woods.
A pastor and bus driver working for a private company contracted to the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage public school districts has been fired for leading students on his bus route in Christian prayer, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Forty-nine-year-old George Nathaniel, of Richfield, who is a pastor at Elite Church of the First Born and Grace Missionary Baptist Church, both in Minneapolis, received a separation letter from his employer, Durham School Services, on Oct. 30, after having received a warning and a reassignment to new routes. Undaunted, Nathaniel, who drove buses in Wisconsin and Georgia before coming to Minnesota and claims to have led prayers on buses in both places, reportedly said, “I let them know I am a pastor and I am going to pray.” After the last student was picked up, he would lead the kids in a song, offer a prayer, and then invite the kids to pray with him. “Just give them something constructive and positive to go to school with,” he said.
He said there was no pressure on students to pray with him. “If they don’t want to pray, they don’t have to pray.”
“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” said the separation letter from Nathaniel’s employer. A spokesperson for Durham said that while the company has no policy on the subject of prayer, the company’s contract with the school district does provide for the removal of employees the district deems unsuitable for the job.
Ruth Dunn, communications director for the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage school district, did not comment on the prayers but did say that “(w)e do consider the school bus to be an extension of the school day when it pertains to student behavior and support.” But according to the Strib, Nathaniel considers the firing to be a violation of his right to free speech.
But Teresa Nelson, legal director of the ACLU of Minnesota, said that while Nathaniel has the right to pray on his own time, “when he has a captive audience of kids on a school bus, that would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”
The article goes on to quote other perspectives: Gayla Collins, a thirteen-year veteran bus driver in the district, said that while she considers herself a Christian, she considered leading prayers on a school bus inappropriate: “That belongs at home, the teachings.” She also cited the diversity of the district, including a marked Muslim presence. One Muslim parent, Sanaa Hersi, voiced concern about prayers being said on the bus without parents’ knowledge and the confusion of students who are being taught to pray in the Muslim fashion. Another parent, Nikki Williams, is quoted as saying, “If they don’t like it, they can just ignore it.”
And there’s the rub. While proponents of open and public displays of religious piety in government-sponsored settings like to portray them as harmless, purely voluntary and inclusive actions, prayers led by authority figures in such settings are by nature exclusive and impossible to ignore, which is ultimately why people do it. The quote from Nathaniel that closes the Strib‘s write-up admits as much: “We got to get Christians to be able to be Christians and not have to be closet Christians,” he says. “You have something good, you are going to share it with somebody.”