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A school bus driver says he was taken off his route last week because he was leading students in prayer while driving, alleging that the move violates his constitutional rights to freely speak and practice his religion.

It’s not the first time that George Nathaniel has raised concerns by praying with children on a bus. Four years ago, Nathaniel was fired from his job driving Burnsville kids to school for the same reason.

But that didn’t stop Nathaniel, pastor of a Minneapolis congregation, from trying again with students attending Nasha Shkola, a Brooklyn Park charter school focused on Russian language and culture.

“That’s where the Constitution comes in,” Nathaniel said. “You’ve got the freedom to exercise your religious beliefs.”

Nathaniel admitted that his ultimate goal is to convert people to Christianity, but said he had never forced students to pray with him.

However, Muk Musa, owner of Quality Care Transportation, the company that employed Nathaniel, said school officials received complaints that he “was influencing minors to the point where he was forcing them to pray.”

Musa said that while he allows his drivers time for personal prayer, leading children in prayer isn’t a bus driver’s job.

While Nathaniel hasn’t technically been fired — Musa said he hasn’t had time to sit down with Nathaniel since taking away his route Friday — he hasn’t been given a new route either.

“He’s not going to change. His main focus is to influence even one person in following what he worships,” Musa said.

Calls to Nasha Shkola administrators weren’t returned Thursday.

Nathaniel, 54, said that children need more prayer in their lives. He’s on a mission to bring prayer back into public schools, he said.

Nathaniel started working for Quality Care Transportation in January 2017. This winter, he began a daily routine on the bus incorporating prayer on the nearly two-hour ride.

“The students would volunteer to lead the prayer,” Nathaniel said.

He said he was shocked that parents had an issue because he had discussed praying on the bus with them. He said he thinks their real concern was that he disciplined rude students by moving them to another area on the bus.

Most students at Nasha Shkola are Russian and Christian, including some who fled persecution in the former Soviet Union, said parent Art Loghinov.

Loghinov didn’t object when he heard the bus driver was praying with students, including his two children.

“As a Christian, of course I want kids to know more about Jesus, but I don’t want kids or parents to be pushed,” he said.

Erin Adler • 612-673-1781