BURNSVILLE, Minn.— A pastor who worked as a bus driver for the Burnsville school district said he has been fired for leading kids in Christian prayers on his bus.
George Nathaniel, 49, of Richfield, who is also a pastor for a pair of Minneapolis churches, was in his second year as a school bus driver for Durham School Services, which is under contract to the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage district.
Nathaniel told the Star Tribune Durham School Services originally gave him a warning and assigned him two new bus routes after receiving a complaint about the prayers.
Nathaniel said he prayed during the seven-minute ride to school after the last child got on board.
"We start out with a song," he said. "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."
Nathaniel continued to lead prayers, and Durham sent him a separation letter dated Oct. 30, citing complaints of religious material on the bus.
In a 1962 case, the Supreme Court ruled that it's unconstitutional for public schools to encourage or lead students in prayer, and a series of court decisions since then have broadened the ban on school prayer to include prayers led by any representative of a school.
In 2000, the court found that even student-led prayers over the school loudspeakers would be unconstitutional.
School prayer, courts have found, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which says the government may not establish an official religion.
Nathaniel said he wasn't doing the children any harm.
"To fire a bus driver for praying for the safety of the children" is not right, he said.
Durham spokeswoman Molly Hart said that "the company does not have a specific policy on the subject of prayer."
The district's contract with the bus company allows for the schools to have an employee of the bus company removed if it deems that person unsuitable for the job.
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."