By Lee Shearer | Athens Banner-Herald | August 8, 2019
A Christian prayer vigil scheduled for Saturday at Gaines Elementary School has been moved to nearby Green Acres Church after parents and others questioned its propriety and the ACLU of Georgia issued a statement saying the school principal’s letter inviting Christian pastors to participate in a prayer vigil at the school “raises serious constitutional concerns.”
“Government resources cannot be used to promote religion, and such actions can unintentionally make students of other faiths or no faith feel unwelcomed,” the ACLU wrote.
“In his personal capacity off school property, Dr. Luther McDaniel is, of course, free to invite Christians to pray for his school, and people of all faiths are free to pray for his school,” said Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia, in the ACLU’s emailed statement. “There are other ways to invite the community to show their heartfelt good wishes for a successful school year for all of the students, teachers, and staff in the school without promoting one kind of religion.”
Parents and others also questioned the event on social media after principal Luther McDaniel’s letter of invitation to the event was posted on Facebook.
It wasn’t clear from the post who Monday’s letter was intended for, but McDaniel subsequently clarified that his letter was meant for pastors.
“Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,” McDaniel began. “It is with sincere humility and excitement that I begin my tenure as the principal of Gaines Elementary School. In 2018, Gaines Elementary was named a “turnaround-eligible” school. In 2019, we are seeking the Lord to lead a transformation of this entire school community. To officially and collectively invite the Holy Spirit to permeate our school campus, I would like to invite you to a “Pray for Gaines” community gathering, sponsored by the Athens Prayer Network, on Saturday, August 10, 2019, from 9 to 10 am. As we seek to surround our entire school in prayer, this will not be an event, but rather the kickoff of a community-wide prayer partnership for Gaines Elementary School. I hope you will be able to join us.
Yours in Christ,
Principal - Luther McDaniel, PhD.”
On Tuesday, before the ACLU statement, McDaniel apologized in an open letter to parents and community members.
“As a longtime educator, I approached this new opportunity believing that my success at Gaines Elementary would be positively impacted by generating the support of people and organizations throughout the Clarke County community. Coupled with my own experiences, professional training, the value I place on education, and my full commitment to our students and families, I truly believe we can do great things for the Gaines School community,” McDaniel wrote.
“I will also readily admit that a strong part of who I am is rooted in my personal faith. And my personal faith has led to my need to share with you today. Earlier this summer, I provided a letter of support to a community organization that had offered to sponsor a weekend prayer event for our school. This letter was intended solely for local pastors, but yesterday was posted on Facebook without this important piece of contextual information. I sent the requested letter with the best intentions, but I must now admit that it reflected poor (judgment.)
“While I cannot apologize for my faith, I do acknowledge that I have been an educational leader long enough to realize I pushed the boundaries as it relates to what is and is not an appropriate message from the principal of a public school. I regret the appearance of exclusion and the resulting disunity that has resulted from my letter.”
On Wednesday, Steve Smith of the Athens Prayer Network announced that Saturday’s prayer vigil would take place at nearby Green Acres Baptist Church.
“After much prayer and counsel it has been decided to shift our gathering this Saturday, down the street to Green Acres Baptist Church,” Smith wrote in a Facebook post. “Our heart’s desire is to support, honor and bless Principal Luther, his staff and school. Please join us at 9 a.m. for a powerful time of focused prayer for Gaines.”