Seattle bus driver orders two off bus for discussing religion

Thursday, April 15, 1999

A religious conservative group has threatened to take legal action against a suburban Seattle transit system after a bus driver booted a couple of people off the bus for talking about Jesus.

The Rutherford Institute, based in Virginia, said that late last week a Community Transit bus driver ordered two people off a bus because they would not cease their religious discussion. Community Transit provides public transportation for Snohomish County, a suburb of Seattle.

According to the group, Michelle Shocks, a 25-year-old passenger, was on her way to pick up her children at a day-care center when a man, Kelly Smith of Everett, boarded the bus. Thankful to be out of a torrential downpour, he said, “Praise the Lord.” Shocks, a Christian, heard Smith and engaged him in a religious conversation. The two, several seats apart, traded religious tracts and talked about their respective churches. The bus driver asked Shocks to keep quiet because other passengers might find the discussion of religion offensive. Shocks then moved closer to Smith to resume the religious conversation.

Shortly after moving, Shocks was summoned to the front of the bus and was told by the driver that she would have to get off at the next stop because she refused to stop talking about religion. Smith then approached the driver and asked if it was unlawful to discuss religion in public. The driver responded by also ordering Smith off the bus.

Shocks, five months pregnant, said she walked more than a mile in heavy rain to the day-care center.

Ron Rissler, legal coordinator for the Rutherford Institute, said Shocks was determined to prevent Community Transit from infringing on any other passengers' fundamental rights to free speech and free exercise of religion.

“The free speech and religious rights of Shocks have been clearly trampled by the Community Transit authority,” Rissler said. “We believe that Shocks has the right to speak about religion in the public arena.”

In a Community Transit report filed last week, the bus driver said Shocks and Smith intimidated her. “I told them a bus was not a situation where other passengers who disagreed could get away if they found the discussion disagreeable,” the driver wrote. The driver, whose name has not been released, also wrote that she became intimidated when Smith told her she was possessed by demons.

Smith told The Seattle Times that he did not accuse the driver of being possessed.

Joyce Olson, executive director of Community Transit said in a statement that the situation was being taken seriously and that an investigation was under way. “Community Transit has a policy of nondiscrimination; we support freedom of speech and oppose any infringement upon it,” Olson said.

Olson, however, added that “preliminary findings indicate that there may have been public-safety issues surrounding the incident.” She said the bus driver's space was invaded and that Smith raised his voice.

Rissler disagreed with Olson's suggestion that Shocks and Smith were causing a disturbance. “Our investigation reveals, so far, that the facts according to Shocks do stand up and that there were definitely violations of fundamental rights and that this situation will probably proceed to a federal court.”

The Times opined last week that the situation “suggests gross insensitivity at best and possible religious discrimination.”