The struggle to balance First Amendment rights regarding prayer without imposition has come into the national spotlight in two different cases recently.
Earlier this month in the Burnsville school district in Minnesota, bus driver and pastor George Nathaniel was fired. After being repeatedly warned and reassigned twice, he was finally let go for refusing to stop praying with the students who take his route.
Nathaniel insists that he never forced any of his students to pray, according to the Star Tribune.
“We start out with a song,” he stated. “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.”
Yet the ACLU and school district disagree with the seemingly innocuous nature of Nathaniel’s practices. The legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota told the Star Tribune that “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.”
Nathaniel disagreed. “To fire a bus driver for praying for the safety of the children” is not right, he said.
At Rutgers University in New Brunswick, a similar case has caused a massive outcry from students on campus.
Stan McNeil, an aspiring pastor and bus driver, denied the claim made by bus company officials that he violated safety protocols.
McNeil stated to NJ.com that he was pressured to resign this week after his bosses learned he placed his hand on a female student in a wheelchair and asked God to heal her.
Stan McNeil is beloved among the students who take his route. There is a Facebook page called LX Bus Driver where students rave about the impression he’s made on them. The page has over 7,000 “likes,” and calls McNeil “the most inspirational, supportive and reassuring person many of us have ever met.”
That popularity has triggered an overwhelming response to his dismissal. In just a few days, a Change.org petition started by a group of Rutgers students requesting driver Stan McNeil’s reinstatement has gathered more than 6,500 signatures, and collected dozens of comments from students and Rutgers alumni.
McNeil thanked the students for their support, and makes no apologies for his religious beliefs.
“I don’t regret none of it. I said this is who I am. I ain’t going to back down from who I am,” McNeil said. “I will not compromise. I am all about God, brother.”