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Gaines Elementary principal sparks church-state debate

Luther McDaniel

By Joe Johnson

Luther McDaniel sparked a church-state controversy on Monday, the first day of school in Athens-Clarke County and his first day as the new principal at Gaines Elementary School.

He had sent a letter to members of the Christian Athens Prayer Network, with the following invitation:

“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, on Saturday, August 10, 2019, from 9 to 10am. 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

The facilitator of the Athens Prayer Network, Steve Smith, on Monday afternoon posted the invitation to his group’s Facebook page, announcing that “we've been given an amazing, unprecedented opportunity to physically pray on site at a local elementary. What makes this so unique is that we are actually being invited by the incoming principal! We're hoping for some 500-praying people from around Athens to encircle the school. Here is Luther McDaniel's personal invite for you to join us in the epic, spiritual ground shaking prayer gathering!”

A spirited social media debate quickly ensued, with some people welcoming religious support for the school and others condemning the planned event as breach of the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state.

Some more vocal opponents of the event said it violated Clarke County School District policy and vowed to complain to district officials and even file suit.

“This is completely unacceptable and inappropriate. If he wanted to build community, he very well could have asked all of the faith communities in Athens to come together and wish the children and teachers a good school year. Instead, he explicitly invited only Christians,” someone posted on the Classic City News Facebook page.

“Grounds for immediate dismissal. He is paid by the public to administer a school, not minister to it,” another person posted.

Supporters also posted their feelings on Facebook.

“Mr. McDaniel is not new to the district -- he was for many years the principal at Whitehead Rd Elementary, where both my daughters have attended (my youngest still does),’ someone posted. “I'm a firm believer on the separation of church and state, and I do not consider myself a Christian, and there was never anything that made me concerned during his tenure at WRES. I don't know what ‘Athens page’ he posted this to, but unless it was one for the school, I don't think he deserves this criticism. He's a great principal, and Gaines Elementary is lucky to have him.”

“Another of McDaniel’s supporters posted, “If the presence of God were in the schools they would surely every be a better place. God was removed so now our kids have to go to school never knowing if evil will show up one day. Very sad for kids and parents these days. Pray for our schools regardless of what anybody says.”

After CCN asked for the school district to weigh in on the controversy, spokeswoman Mary Walsh Wickwire sent a letter she said was written by McDaniel and was to be 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.”

Wickwire, the school district’s spokesperson did not respond to questions asking whether McDaniel had violated policy and whether the prayer circle at the public elementary school would be allowed to take place.

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