MN school bus driver fired for leading students in prayer

schoolbus-81717A 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.”

In MA, a new tactic in Pledge “under God” language challenge

poaweb3msPrevious challenges to the language “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance were based on church-state separation issues.  A new challenge, being argued before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on behalf of anonymous atheist parents in suburban Boston, attempts to frame the issue as a violation of that state’s constitution’s Equal Rights Amendment.

“It validates believers as good patriots and it invalidates atheists as non-believers at best and unpatriotic at worst,” said David Niose, attorney for the plaintiffs, former head of the American Humanist Association, and now head of the Secular Coalition for America, according to NBC News.  Defendants, who are being defended by attorneys from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, are maintaining that the pledge is voluntary and is not an affirmation of religion, but a statement of American political philosophy.  “It’s the founding thing upon which our country was founded. Our rights did not come from the king or the tsar or the queen. They come from something higher.”  This from Becket Fund attorney Geoffrey Bok, according to HuffPo.

He is, I believe, referring to the consent of the governed, I mean a higher, supernatural power.

Niose is making a tough case to prove, since the Pledge has been held to be voluntary since 1943.  He needs to prove that there is some form of compulsion going on with saying the Pledge.  He is arguing that kids generally want to participate in patriotic actions, particularly when they are being participated in along with the rest of their peers.  Students do not always want to be exposed as different from their peers, and be in danger of ostracism or retaliation from teachers, administrators or peers.

Meanwhile, over on Fox News’ The Five, Dana Perino complained how “tired” she was of such complaints.  “If these people really don’t like it, they don’t have to live here,”  she said, sort of confirming everything that advocates of a secular pledge have been saying.

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“From this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural school house, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty…. In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource, in peace or in war.” — President Dwight D. Eisenhower, on signing legislation adding the words “Under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance, June 14, 1954

Dana, its’s actually very simple.  “Under God” was not in the original language of the Pledge, and had not been for over fifty years until it was put there during the height of the McCarthy era.  If it’s not a prayer and it’s not an affirmation of religion, what is the language doing there, aside from telling kids who don’t believe that they are not as patriotic as their believing peers?  And if the language were taken away, what would the damage be, except to some believers’ sense of religious privilege?  Look at Ike’s quote at right and try to interpret his words as being anything other than a defense of establishment of religion.  Try substituting the word reason for “the Almighty” and “religious faith” in that quote, along with “intellectual” for “spiritual”.  As an atheist, I would still find that too favorable to one side.

Secondly, the mere fact that the majority of Americans identify as believers does not give them the right to make determinations concerning the rights of the minority, particularly when it comes to matters of conscience.  Stop acting as though believers “own” the country, Dana.  They never have.  Neither do non-believers.  There is no reason why, in a country as religious as we always have been, that state institutions need to affirm religion, especially as it seems to be accepted wisdom that the state does everything badly.  Why does it then seem so important that the state affirm your faith at the expense of our lack of faith, or would affirm it as well as the “private sector”, i. e. your church or home.

The first dated post

Hello all.  This is the Plastic Exploding atheism blog, companion to my Blogspot blog, which I have had for several years and is mostly about films and my cultural interests.

The main reason for the blog are the permanent pages you see up there on the menu, though I expect I will be occasionally doing some dated posts on atheism and related subjects.  The main reason for this post is to get the ball rolling (after an interminable time of preparing my material, I uploaded everything today, so everything is brand spanking new) and to get rid of the “Hello World” sample post.

I hope the work is good, and if not, I hope to improve.  Try not to shatter my illusions of literary competence too quickly.