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Christian prayer event on Athens public school grounds cancelled

By Joe Johnson

In the face of public outcry, a Christian prayer event that had been planned for this weekend on the campus of an Athens public school was cancelled and rescheduled to be held at a local church.

The cancellation came after a letter that Gaines Elementary School principal Luther McDaniel said had been intended for local pastors got posted to Facebook and sparked public controversy over whether such an event would violate the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state.

The letter stated, in part: “Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

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, a Christian group.

The letter was signed, “Yours in Christ," Principal Luther McDaniel, Gaines Elementary School.

The letter was posted Monday to the Athens Prayer Network’s Facebook page, generating comments both for and against the event and prompting complaints to the school district.

On Wednesday the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to Clarke County Schools Superintendent Demon Means “to alert you to a serious violation of the First Amendment occurring” in the school district, and that “we write to ensure the (school district) does not allow its administrators or employees to organize or participate in future religious events while acting as district representatives.”

The letter concludes by stating, “We request an immediate investigation and response in writing outlining the steps you are taking to protect the right of conscience of the district’s minority religions and non-religious students and families.”

After Classic City News asked for the school district to weigh in on the controversy, spokeswoman Mary Walsh Wickwire provided a letter she said was written by McDaniel and was distributed to the Gaines Elementary School community.

In the letter, McDaniel spoke of his eagerness to work with parents, teachers and the community:

“As the new principal of Gaines Elementary School, he said that he was “excited about our successful start to the school year and I am eager to work with our parents, teachers, and community “to make progress toward meeting the ambitious goals we have set for our students.”

McDaniel stated that as a longtime educator he was approaching his new responsibilities with the belief his success would be helped 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.

“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,” he said. “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.

The principal concluded his letter by stating, “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.”

The Athens Prayer Network announced on Facebook Wednesday evening that the “Pray For Gaines” event would be held at 9 a.m. Saturday at Green Acres Baptist Church on South Barnett Shoals Road.

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