Bus prayer threatens driver's job

Church-state issue raised in schools

December 13, 2001|By Sheridan Lyons and Childs Walker | Sheridan Lyons and Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Stella Tsourakis thought she was helping when she led a busload of Carroll County middle school pupils in the Lord's Prayer on Sept. 12, the morning after hijacked airplanes crashed into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

Now, Tsourakis, a driver, is afraid she'll lose her new job because the Hampstead-area children attending Shiloh Middle School - now joined by those attending North Carroll High School - will not stop praying before they get off the bus at school.

Tsourakis was told by a school transportation official Nov. 16 to stop leading the prayers or she could lose her job. Tsourakis said she stopped.

When the middle school pupils asked whether they could continue the prayers, Tsourakis told them to do what they thought was best. So they now lead their own prayer.

A few days later, when the high school students learned of the school system's order to halt the praying, they began leading a prayer, too, just as the Shiloh pupils are doing: When the bus stops in front of the school building, the doors are opened so anyone who wants to can leave and the Lord's Prayer is then recited.

On Tuesday, Tsourakis said she was called in by two school transportation officials and warned again.

School officials said it was a personnel matter that they could not discuss.

Tsourakis said the prayer started after she was swept up in the tragic events of Sept. 11. "Here you have the president of the United States, telling us all to pray, national television services with praying. I'm not giving [the pupils] my beliefs. We never discussed religion at all. I can't do that," said Tsourakis.

There was disagreement about whether drivers were told during their three-day training that it was against policy to lead prayers on a school bus.

James Doolan, the school system's transportation supervisor, said that as part of their training, all school bus drivers are briefed on church-state issues and told specifically not to lead children in prayer. The children are permitted to lead themselves in prayer, however, as long as they don't disrupt normal activities.

Susan Reter, secretary of Lawrence Schaffer Bus Service in Hampstead, which employs Tsourakis, said in her experience church-state issues have never been mentioned and bus drivers have never been specifically ordered not to lead children in prayer.

The training covers such topics as touching children, handling children with special needs and enforcing discipline.

Tammy Dean, a driver who attended the same training classes as Tsourakis, said the classes never mentioned church-state issues in general or prohibitions on prayer in particular.

Reter said she will tell drivers from now on not to lead prayers. The company operates 23 buses for the school system. "We can't afford to lose our license," she said. "If we condone this, we could lose our contract with Carroll County."

Charles I. Ecker, the interim school superintendent, said if drivers weren't told of the rules regarding religion and schools or misunderstood, the school system should make every effort to be sure they understand. Generally, courts have ruled that children can organize prayer at school but school officials may not promote religious activities.

Tsourakis said she sent a note home to parents asking for their permission to say the prayer, and all but one parent approved.

But because Tsourakis initiated the prayer, said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, "She's already poisoned the well constitutionally. Those children are obviously doing the prayers because she told them that's what they should do.

"It's organized prayer on a school bus after the kids were instructed how to do it by a government contract official," he said. "That's just wrong, and the unfortunate thing is, you can't stop the snowball from rolling down the hill at this point."

Tsourakis, 37, a Manchester mother of three, began her $11-an-hour job for the Lawrence bus company when school opened in August. She drives two Finksburg-area routes, serving the two Hampstead-area schools.

Parents and students, her employer, local politicians and two lawyers have offered her their support, Tsourakis said.

Del. Carmen Amedori, a Carroll Republican, was called by a parent Monday night and went with Tsourakis to her hearing Tuesday morning. She said the two school transportation officials did not threaten to fire Tsourakis, "but they were pretty rough on her."

Amedori said she plans to meet next week with Shiloh Middle School Principal Tom Hill. He said that he could not discuss a personnel matter and that he had received one inquiry about the prayers from a parent.

Sun staff writer Maria Blackburn contributed to this article.

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