- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 13, 2002

A school bus driver who led students in prayer on their morning ride is suing the Carroll County school board, claiming it violated her rights when it pulled her off her bus route for saying the Lord's Prayer.
"Right now, I am fighting for my rights," Stella Tsourakis said in an interview yesterday. "My rights were violated."
Mrs. Tsourakis began leading students from Shiloh Middle School in prayer in October, when she started driving a bus for the county school district.
She did it, she said, because President Bush had asked the country to pray after the September 11 terrorist attacks, and the students expressed interest.
She was officially reprimanded by interim schools Superintendent Charles Ecker, and county officials told the students they could not pray even quietly to themselves. That order was soon amended to allow students to pray, but not with Mrs. Tsourakis.
Mrs. Tsourakis was reprimanded a second time just before Christmas, this time for exchanging gifts with the students and for displaying on the bus a white homemade cross that one youngster had given her.
Her lawyer, Steven Tiedemann, sent a letter to Mr. Ecker in February, demanding that Mrs. Tsourakis' record be cleared because the reprimands were infringements on her constitutional rights. Mr. Tiedemann said that, in response, the school board suspended Mrs. Tsourakis without pay for one week on Feb. 28.
Friday, the school board told Mrs. Tsourakis she had been decertified, meaning she is no longer allowed to drive buses for Carroll County public schools. Mrs. Tsourakis works for an outside contractor, Schaeffer Bus Lines, so she did not lose her job; she is currently driving private buses.
Mr. Tiedemann filed the lawsuit Monday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, claiming that Mrs. Tsourakis' First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion and free speech, among others, were violated. The suit seeks recertification so she can drive county school buses again, and also asks for unspecified damages.
Six students who rode Mrs. Tsourakis' bus also are named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit and are seeking the right to pray on school buses without restrictions.
James O'Meally, a lawyer for Mr. Ecker, said Mrs. Tsourakis' decertification had nothing to do with the prayer.
"It was a matter of infractions. We were not out to get her," Mr. O'Meally said. He said he could not release the specific charges against Mrs. Tsourakis until he filed a response in court to her lawsuit.
Mr. Tiedemann said the county dismissed Mrs. Tsourakis for various minor infractions, including going two to five miles over the speed limit, and for stopping the bus on the side of the road instead of in a nontraffic area to check the bus for students after finishing her route.
Mrs. Tsourakis charges in her suit that school officials had her followed regularly on her bus route for five months, "in an effort to find a nonreligious way to terminate her certification."
"They have nothing on me. If it was a safety issue, my contractor would have fired me first," said Mrs. Tsourakis, of Manchester. "They decertified me because they don't want the children praying on the bus."
Some parents have taken Mrs. Tsourakis' side.
"It sounds like they're harassing her," said Dawn Ferguson, whose 11-year-old daughter Jamie rode on Mrs. Tsourakis' bus. "I think these are all trumped up charges."
Regis Burket, whose son Garrett is among the plaintiffs, said the prayer was a positive force.
"Why should a woman be punished for it?" he asked. "It shouldn't even be an issue."
Students have continued to say the Lord's Prayer on their bus ride, and the practice has spread to other buses from the middle school and even some from North Carroll High School.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.


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