A public school bus driver in Minnesota captured headlines recently after he was fired because he refused to stop singing hymns and praying with students.
George Nathaniel, a contract employee with the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District, had been warned that there were complaints about his religious proselytism. He ignored them and lost his job.
Nathaniel, who also serves as pastor of a Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis, griped about what happened to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “To fire a bus driver for praying for the safety of the children” is not right, he said.
Actually, the school district did exactly the right thing. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Abington Township v. Schempp, one of the Supreme Court’s leading school prayer cases. It’s not as if this is a recent ruling. By now, everyone who works in the public education system should know that imposing compulsory forms of religious worship onto children is forbidden.
Nathaniel and some of his supporters have argued that he had a right to pray with the youngsters. He had no such right. Religious freedom means the right to make decisions about faith for yourself, not others.
We are hearing similar arguments from the far right in other contexts: An employer refuses to provide necessary medical services to his employees because their actions would affect his religious freedom. A pharmacist refuses to give someone medication a doctor has prescribed and cites religious liberty. A preacher demands the right to pray in a sectarian manner before a government meeting and calls it religious liberty.
Such claims turn a noble concept on its head. The right of every American to pray, worship, sing hymns, spread religious messages, etc. is protected. These actions are protected because they are private choices made by individuals.
Imposing prayer, worship or dogma onto someone else is entirely different. The bus driver’s religious freedom argument fails because he wanted to make theological decisions not for himself but for others. In this case, his actions are even more problematic because he wanted to make these decisions for impressionable young children. That is not his job.
Religious freedom is a vitally important concept for all people. Indeed, it is a fundamental human right. That’s why it’s important that we get it right.
Religious Right groups and their allies are attempting to twist the meaning of religious liberty. Instead of a shield that protects the individual, they seek to convert it into a cudgel to use against others.
Such a redefinition sullies the noble concept of religious liberty. It must be strongly resisted.