A public school bus driver in Minnesota has been fired for leading Christian prayers on his bus. George Nathaniel, 49, had previously been warned against the prayer sessions but he decided to continue with the prayer sessions anyway. Nathaniel, who also works as a pastor for two Minneapolis churches, claims he had been upfront about his intentions to lead prayer sessions. He also says the Christian religion is under attack.
"I let them know I am a pastor and I am going to pray," he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. But on Oct. 30, he received a letter from the Durham School Services bus company, which stated: "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."
What was the reason for the firing? Nathaniel was fired for violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from establishing a national religion. And in the 1962 case Engel vs. Vitale, the Supreme Court "ruled that it's unconstitutional for a public school to lead or encourage students in prayer," as Opposing Views put it. The Court has repeatedly upheld the ban in subsequent rulings.
What exactly did Nathaniel do? His sessions took place over the seven-minute ride to the Edward D. Neill Elementary School and Metcalf Junior High School. Nathaniel told the Star Tribune the sessions would start with a song and then the students were asked if they wanted to join in. He said the idea was to "give them something constructive and positive to go to school with."
In speaking to the local CBS outlet, ACLU legal director Teresa Nelson explained why his prayer sessions were problematic. "The school bus is a captive audience," she said. "When he is driving the bus he is acting like a school official and he does not have the right to proselytize or promote religion in that context."
Nathaniel emphasized to CBS that he had given students the choice not to participate. "A couple of routes I had children that chose not to pray and that was fine," he said. He also emphasized that "no parent complained to me, personally," and the only negative feedback he had gotten was from school administrators. But he also acknowledged, "The company gave me a written warning that you cannot pray on the bus."