Strong Backbone Student Activist Awardees: Tillie and Izzy Bartholomew

Two elementary school children hugging and smilingTwo young elementary school students in Portland, Ore., have received $500 each by earning FFRF’s annual $1,000 “Strong Backbone Award” for calling out (and recording on video) a proselytizing Christian bus driver.

Tim Bartholomew was alarmed to learn from his children — Tillie, 8, and Izzy, 7 — that their public school bus driver would “talk and sing about God and Jesus” and would encourage students to join in. But, the Portland (Ore.) Public Schools district ignored these serious concerns. Bartholomew said he 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 the video was released of the bus driver’s unconstitutional conduct, the driver’s assistant reportedly “asked students on the bus who had an issue with their singing,” a 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 — Bartholomew no longer felt comfortable putting his children on the bus and had been driving them to school the remainder of the school year.

Bartholomew, who founded Rational Atheists United, is now filing a discrimination case with the support of the Oregon Department of Education.

On May 31, Bartholomew wrote to FFRF with an update, saying that the school district left the driver on the same route, but assigned a separate bus for his kids on that same corner, while moving the bus driver and that bus stop down a few blocks.

“So, this morning, the bus driver made sure the other kids and their families knew that they could blame my kids for them having to walk down two or three blocks to his new stop,” Bartholomew writes. “He literally stopped his bus to tell them at my kids’ stop with my wife and kids there. It’s honestly infuriating. My youngest burst into tears when he stopped to announce to the other kids that he had to move the stop due to my kids reporting him.”

Bartholomew is also working with FFRF to resolve the situation. FFRF has contacted Portland Public Schools to remind it that public schools have a constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion.

“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 wrote to Portland Public Schools Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero.

The following was written by Tillie, who recorded the video of the driver leading the kids in worship songs:

“Me and my sister were riding the bus until the bus driver was saying prayers and singing God songs. We are taught to believe in facts and proof and not believe in magic ideas like a god. We told Dad this was happening. It made us sad and feel anxious because the driver was making us sing, but we had to fake sing. Then I recorded it, and I hoped that he would stop. My little sister Izzy was scared of him, mostly after he made all the kids know we made him stop. He asked all the kids who wanted no more singing, and we raised our hands. Only me and Izzy and maybe one other kid.

“My Dad has had to drive us to school, then leave work on break to get us and go back to work in our old town. He did this for a while. But today we got to go to the bus stop because the school said they fixed the problem. But all they did was put us on a different bus away from our friends on the bus.

“Today, we were about to get picked up, then our old bus stopped and the bus driver yelled about us and Izzy was crying. I was so mad he did that.

“The bus driver can’t do that because there are kids that are atheist and kids that believe in other gods. We have a wall, says Dad, between those things so that kids don’t get bullied or forced to feel their way is bad. That’s not fair and no teacher or school worker should do that. We hope it doesn’t happen to other kids anymore.”

FFRF’s “Strong Backbone Award” is endowed by an anonymous FFRF member each year on his birthday. He is now 91 years old and, when told of this situation, said, “Keep going forward.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation