Friday, November 15, 2013

The Prayers on the Bus Go 'Round and 'Round...

            Earlier this month, a Minnesotan school bus driver was fired from his job for inviting public school students on his bus route to pray with him. George Nathaniel III, is a pastor at the Elite Church of the First Born and Grace Missionary Church in Minneapolis, who also works as a bus driver in the Burnsville School District. His route transports students to both local elementary and high schools.

Nathaniel claims to have given the students a choice to engage in prayer or not, “I ask the students would they like to pray and if they like to pray then they can lead prayer themselves and then I will pray,” he told CBS. As a pastor, Nathaniel felt that it was his job to invite students to prayer and did not see anything wrong with morning prayer on the bus, since he never forced any students to pray. He also has told the Star Tribune that he was praying for the “safety of the children,” and after the last child boarded the bus on the seven-minute ride to school, Nathaniel would start out with a song and then invite students to join him in prayer, giving them, “something constructive and positive to go to school with.” Nathaniel was given a warning from his company, Durham School Services, who received a complaint from the school district. After continuing to lead prayer on the bus after being told by his employers to stop, he was terminated in a formal letter saying “There have been more complaints of religious material on the bus as well as other complaints regarding performance.”

There are several issues at stake in this particular circumstance. First, there is the issue of a “captive audience.” According to the ACLU legal director Teresa Nelson, Nathaniel violated the First Amendment because the “school bus is a captive audience. 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.” Ruth Dunn, a school district official, refused to comment directly on prayers but did say that the district considers “the school bus to be an extension of the school day when it pertains to student behavior and support.” Finally, an employment lawyer commented on Nathaniel’s behavior, and argued that while the law tries to “balance employees’ rights to express religious beliefs and the rights of others to be free from the imposition of those beliefs,” that Nathaniel’s morning prayer fails to satisfy the stipulation of not being an imposition, since he is an authority figure to the students.

A second problem addressed by the Star Tribune was the diversity of the school district. Another district bus driver noted that some routes transport primarily Muslim students, and a Muslim parent, Sanaa Hersi, whose daughter is in the elementary school, is concerned that prayer on the bus would undermine the Islamic prayer they teach at home. On the other hand, another parent was fine with the prayer, claiming, “If they don’t like it, they can just ignore it.” Nathaniel claims to have spoken with parents as he saw them at bus stops to ask if what he was doing was okay with them, and they agreed it was fine. Clearly Sanaa Hersi was not at the bus stop that morning.
Ultimately, Nathaniel rejects the claims of the ACLU as well as the district, and believes his termination to be a violation of his right to free exercise, as well as free speech. He has claimed “they are trying to take away every right the Christian has to express our Christian belief in this supposed to have been Christian nation” and that Christians have been relegated to being “closet Christians,” but that if “you have something good, you are going to share it with somebody.” The question is, in the context of his job as a school bus driver, does Nathaniel have the right to share his belief and invite explicitly Christian prayer among the students on the bus? Is his inability to pray on the bus a violation of his free exercise, or is the imposition of Christian prayer on a group of public school students a form of Establishment? In part, this depends on whether or not one considers time on the bus to be an extension of the school day, but it also begs the question of who exactly should be regarded as a representative of the school?

The Supreme Court has dealt with very similar questions in several cases, especially in Lee v. Weisman where the Court deemed it unconstitutional to have clergy-led prayer at a graduation ceremony as the clergy was seen as a representative of the school, which upheld the decision in the landmark case, Engel v. Vitale which made it unconstitutional for schools to encourage or lead prayer in school even if students are not forced to participate. More recently, the court found student-led prayer before football games to be unconstitutional since it was seen as the district’s endorsement of religion on school property and at a school event, in Sante Fe Independent School District v. Doe. Generally, the courts have found that school prayer violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

            Following the trend in school prayer cases over the past 50 years, I agree with the bus company’s decision to terminate Nathaniel’s employment. He has a captive audience of young people, who admittedly are not forced to take the bus to school, but in many cases if a parent works, the bus is the only option. So in that way, the student has no choice but to be there (much like a football player on the football team in Santa Fe v. Doe, or a student who wants to be at graduation in Lee). I also consider the time on the bus, as well as the physical space, to be an extension of the school day, particularly because the buses are funded by tax dollars and are school property. Following the argument in Santa Fe, prayer led by an individual is not private speech, but it is speech representative of the school, since it is on school property and in a school-related setting. Granted, the students have not begun the official school day, but by the same token, if a student were beat up on the school bus, would the school not consider that behavior to be punishable since the school day has not started yet? Finally, as we have seen in other cases and blog posts, giving children the opportunity to not pray when everyone else is—whether it is within the confines of a classroom or a football stadium or a graduation ceremony, and now a bus—is not always an easy choice to make and can be coercive even when coercion is not intended.

            What do you think? Should Nathaniel have been able to lead prayer on the bus? Was his termination a violation of his right to free exercise, or was the prayer a form of Establishment?


Gabby D. said...

I completely agree with Maggie in this case. It is obvious from the precedent that Maggie listed that the Court would agree with her reasoning and support the firing of the bus driver. In addition, the Court has always taken a strict separationist view when it comes to public school children. These children are easily molded and I think it's dangerous to have a prayer led by the only adult on the bus. Young children of that age will often go along with anything adults tell them to do, especially if it is an authoritative figure like the bus driver. Therefore, I that that it is very inappropriate for the bus driver to have led this prayer and I think the school took the correct action in firing him.

Jennie M. said...

I agree with both Maggie and Gabby that it was inappropriate for the bus driver to be leading students in prayer. Leading students, or even asking them to lead, a prayer on a public school bus constitutes an establishment of Christianity. The bus driver is not a teacher, but is still an authority figure that speaks for the school. The school district gave him a warning before eventually firing him, and I think this was the right thing to do.