Avoid constitutional collision, FFRF advises Portland, Ore., school district

Slam the brakes on a preaching bus driver, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is urging the Portland, Ore., school district.

A concerned district parent has raised serious concerns about a bus driver proselytizing to students. The parent was rightly alarmed to learn from his children that the bus driver would “talk and sing about God and Jesus” and would also encourage students to join in. The school district ignored these very serious concerns, and the parent needed to reach out to the American Civil Liberties Union and Oregon Department of Education in order to get the school district to take this matter seriously. After a video was released of this unconstitutional conduct, the bus driver’s assistant reportedly “asked students on the bus who had an issue with their singing,” a very disturbing attempt to identify which students were not willing to participate in the bus driver’s daily religious rituals. Due to the proselytizing — and the subsequent attempt to seek out nonconforming students — the parent no longer feels comfortable putting his children on the bus and has been driving them to school.

Public schools have a constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion and to respect the rights of conscience of students, FFRF emphasizes.

“Students have the First Amendment right to be free from religious indoctrination in their public schools, including while riding on the school bus,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to Portland Public Schools Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero. “It is well settled that public schools may not show favoritism towards or coerce belief or participation in religion.”

And when public school employees use their position to promote Christianity, it sends a clear message to non-Christian students “that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community,” to quote the U.S. Supreme Court. This is particularly alienating in a place such as Portland, where 48 percent of its county (Multnomah County) residents are religiously unaffiliated.

The Supreme Court has recognized that “families entrust public schools with the education of their children, but condition their trust on the understanding that the classroom will not purposely be used to advance religious views that may conflict with the private beliefs of the student and his or her family.” Here, as with the cases involving teachers, the bus driver has violated the trust that parents place in the district to ensure that all employees follow the Constitution and refrain from pushing their own religious beliefs on impressionable students.

The district has finally started taking this matter seriously and may be working to correct it; FFRF still wants to make certain that the district is acting swiftly to protect the rights of its students to be free from proselytizing in its schools, including during bus rides to and from school.

“The safety of these very young children is in the hands of bus drivers, who cannot be allowed to coerce students religiously,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The district seems to be moving in the right direction to remedy the issue — and we want to encourage it to keep on doing so.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with over 40,000 members across the country, including more than 1,100 members in Oregon. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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