George Nathaniel pastors a pair of churches (Elite Church of the First Born and Grace Missionary Baptist Church) in Minneapolis.
He is also was a bus driver for a local school district…until last week.
Why is Nathaniel no longer driving routes for students?
Because the 49-year-old pastor led students in Christian prayers on the bus, even after the district warned him to cease and desist, the Minneapolis StarTribune reported.
Nathaniel considers his dismissal a violation of his free speech.
“To fire a bus driver for praying for the safety of the children” is not right, he told the StarTribune, adding that he was upfront about his intentions: “I let them know I am a pastor and I am going to pray,” he said.
Nathaniel was in his second year of driving students for the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District, which contracts with Durham School Services for bus drivers.
After receiving a complaint from the district about Nathaniel’s prayers, Durham gave the pastor a warning and assigned him two new routes serving Edward D. Neill Elementary School and Metcalf Junior High School in Burnsville, he said.
But Nathaniel kept right on praying with his passengers on a morning route — which he did all last year as well, he said.
“We start out with a song,” he told the StarTribune. “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.”
Since Nathaniel didn’t stop leading prayers, Durham sent him a separation letter dated Oct. 30: “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.”
Ruth Dunn, communications director for the district, declined to comment on Nathaniel’s prayers but offered that the said a school bus is “an extension of the school day when it pertains to student behavior and support.”
Teresa Nelson, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, said “the school bus driver has the right to pray on his own time, but when he has a captive audience of kids on a school bus, that would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”
Still Nathaniel told the StarTribune he talked to parents as he saw them at bus stops, let them know he was a pastor, and asked if it would be okay for him to pray with the kids on the bus. “The parents I talked with,” he said, “they were in agreement that I was doing fine.”
Nathaniel added that he previously helmed school buses in Wisconsin and Georgia where he also prayed with kids.
But Gayla Colin, a district bus driver for 13 years and a Christian, said Nathaniel’s actions were “not appropriate,” telling the StarTribune that prayer “belongs at home.” Colin added that she “absolutely” sees her time on the bus with kids as an extension of the school day and wouldn’t pray with students on the bus.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1962 that it’s unconstitutional for public schools to encourage or lead students in prayer, and subsequent court decisions have upheld and broadened the ban on school prayer to include prayers led by school representatives. School prayer violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, the courts say, in that the government can’t establish an official religion.
Marshall Tanick, a Twin Cities-based employment lawyer, told the StarTribune said Nathaniel’s praying with students “would seem to cross the borderline” because he was an authority, although it’s “a somewhat muddled, gray area, and far from clear cut.”
But not to Sanaa Hersi, whose family is Muslim. She ha a child who rides the bus home from the elementary school where Nathaniel used to operate and told the StarTribune that Christian prayers “would confuse the kids because we teach them to pray in the Islam way.”
Nathaniel’s prayers would have been okay with Nikki Williams, whose three children ride the bus to and from the same elementary school. “It wouldn’t bother me at all,” she told the StarTribune. “I think if someone is praying, they can either be included in it or not…if they don’t like it, they can just ignore it.”
Nathaniel seems more resolute than ever after his firing.
“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.”
So what do you say? Was Nathaniel in the right…or was he out of line?