When Tim Bartholomew moved his family to the East Columbia neighborhood of North Portland in January, he enrolled his children in first and second grade at Faubion School. 

Like many Faubion parents, Bartholomew had his kids take the bus to school. Roughly a week later, Bartholomew’s youngest child reported the bus driver would "talk and sing about God and Jesus." His oldest child said the bus driver and his assistant encouraged kids to join in, too. 

Bartholomew, an atheist who co-founded a nonprofit called Rational Atheists United, was not happy. 

“I said, ‘Well, what if you don’t sing on the bus?’ And my daughters say that the helper will come by and sit with you and make you feel bad if you’re not singing.”

Bartholomew called Faubion to complain about the behavior and inquire about the possibility of getting the bus driver moved to a different route, but found the school unresponsive to his concerns. Around that time, Bartholomew asked his kids to take a video of the driver engaging in overtly Christian activity. 

One day in April, in violation of bus policies about phone use, Bartholomew’s older child made a recording. In the video, which Bartholomew has since posted to YouTube, the driver can be heard asking the students to “scream Hallelujah!” At another, he sings a version of the hymn “Everybody Ought To Know.” 

Bartholomew was horrified. He again reached out to the school, and this time, he didn’t stop there. He also contacted an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who advised him to get in touch with the Oregon Department of Education (ODE). 

ODE was more responsive, reaching out to Bartholomew for more information about the incidents, and, earlier this week, meeting with Portland Public Schools (PPS) officials about the issue. In the meantime, with the bus driver still driving the same route and the conflict unresolved, the fallout has taken its toll on Bartholomew’s family.

Shortly after the video was reported, the bus driver’s assistant asked students on the bus who had an issue with their singing. Bartholomew said his kids raised their hands. Since then, Bartholomew has started driving his kids to school because they no longer feel “safe” on the bus.

Freddie Mack, communications director for PPS, wrote that the district is “aware” of the complaints made against the driver.  

“The situation is being investigated, and we are unable to comment further,” Mack wrote. “We are working closely with our contractor to ensure the adherence of all PPS policies and procedures.”   

Marc Siegel, ODE’s communications manager, wrote in an email to the Mercury that ODE is aware of the allegations but cannot comment on “any open or pending investigations.”

Siegel wrote that, under Oregon law, a public school is barred from supporting or engaging in religious activity. If ODE finds that a school district has violated that statute, the repercussions are serious: the department must immediately stop making State School Fund distributions to the district, pending the outcome of a mandatory hearing about the behavior. 

“If ODE determines through the hearing that the district did engage in religious activity, ODE will determine the duration of the religious activity, permanently withhold any distribution that would have been made during that time period, and refund any money that was withheld outside of that time period, pending the outcome of the hearing,” Siegel wrote. 

Behind the scenes, PPS seems to be taking steps to try to address the issue. According to an email obtained by the Mercury, PPS officials told their ODE counterparts that they discussed the matter with the bus driver on multiple occasions, and are planning to meet with him again in the coming days to convey the impermissibility of his alleged actions. 

The district has also come up with a method for determining how to proceed with possible corrective measures: according to the email, the district will upload bus video footage from 10 to 15 randomly-selected dates since mid-March and watch them back. If they find that the driver ever invoked religion, they will reassign him to another route. If he continues to invoke religion, the email said, he could lose his job.

Even if PPS reassigns the driver to a new route, that may not be the end of ODE’s investigation. Bartholomew, for his part, said he’s surprised PPS let the situation—a clear violation of laws dictating the separation of church and state—go for so long. 

“If I was in Mobile, Alabama, I wouldn’t be surprised,” Bartholomew said. “In Portland, Oregon, I am fucking surprised. I’d have thought when this got reported, they’d have been like, ‘Wow, clear violation, let’s get this guy off the bus.’ The fact that this has gone on for months is surprising for me.”

Bartholomew acknowledged that his family lives in a largely Christian neighborhood, and that some children may not be bothered by the explicitly Christian atmosphere on the bus, but the songs and invitations to prayer speak to a broader issue about who is allowed to feel comfortable with their religious beliefs or lack thereof, and who is not. 

Even in Portland, one of the most religiously unaffiliated cities in the country, the cultural atmosphere remains largely dominated by Protestantism. It’s an issue that Rational Atheists United, which lists as one of its main tenets “the protection of atheists and rational thinkers from persecution,” is keenly aware of. 

Bartholomew said he’s not campaigning to have the bus driver fired. But he wants state law enforced and his children to feel safe riding the bus to school with their classmates. 

“Just drive the bus—do the job that he’s paid for and not use his government-appointed position to proselytize,” Bartholomew said. “It’s pretty obvious.”