Gaines Elementary School made headlines last week as the school’s principal, Luther McDaniel, invited students and their families to a Christian prayer event that was to be held at the school and was later moved to a nearby church. The ACLU of Georgia has constitutional concerns about the invitation, as a government entity, such as a public school, cannot be used to promote a religion. (Photo/Gabriella Audi, www.gabbyaudi10.wixsite.com/mysite-1)

On incoming Gaines Elementary School principal Luther McDaniel’s first school day on the job, the Athens Prayer Network posted a letter the principal sent to the local religious nonprofit onto their Facebook page.

"In 2019, we are seeking the Lord to lead a transformation of this entire school community," the Aug. 5 letter read, with McDaniel addressing “Brothers and Sisters in Christ” to “officially and collectively invite the Holy Spirit to permeate our school campus.”

The letter, written in McDaniel’s official capacity as a public school principal as a letter of encouragement for pastors to partake in an APN-sponsored religious event at the school, was posted out of context: though copied word-for-word, Steve Smith of APN called the letter as "a personal invite" for the Athens Prayer Network Facebook group to join the "epic, spiritual ground shaking prayer gathering."

Soon after its posting, the letter became a topic of concern on social media and prompted members of the community to issue official complaints to the school district and make a press call to the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia to respond.

And so it did. Two days after the letter went live, the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia published a statement on Aug. 7 addressing the constitutional concerns of McDaniel using his official capacity to invite Christians to pray on public school property, including unintentionally making “students of other faiths or no faith feel unwelcomed.”

After “much prayer and counsel” following the ACLUs statement, Smith announced the Aug. 10 prayer vigil would relocate to the Green Acres Baptist Church in an APN Facebook post.

A ‘lapse of judgment’

The Gaines contention is particularly notable for the Clarke County School District, which has found itself taking a proactive role in recognizing the religious rights of students with the approval of a religious tolerance policy in Dec. 2018.

To the knowledge of CCSD Public Relations and Communications Chief of Staff Xernona Thomas, the situation is the first instance of a principal using their capacity to endorse a religious event to occur in the district. But the situation is more nuanced than it may appear, Thomas said.

The letter was never meant for the general public, Thomas said. McDaniel sent the letter to APN after the nonprofit contacted him seeking endorsement to hold a prayer event for “his staff, the school and the community connected to it” at Gaines Elementary, where the principal privately invited members of the faith community to partake in the vigil.

The event was wrongly perceived as a school-endorsed event after Smith referred to the letter as a community-wide invitation and people saw it written in his capacity as principal, Thomas said, and that’s when the “line of separation of church and state became an issue.”

Realizing a “lapse in judgment” following APN publishing the letter, McDaniel notified the school district after recognizing there were community concerns, Thomas said.

McDaniel then issued an apology in an email sent to parents and teachers the day before the ACLU of GA published its statement, stating the letter “reflected poor judgment” and “pushed the boundaries as it relates to what is and is not an appropriate message from the principal of a public school.”

It’s a Southern thing

The situation is also the first time ACLU of Georgia Executive Director Andrea Young has had to respond to a separation-of-church-and-state issue in the city altogether since the beginning of her tenure.

Though First Amendment issues regarding the establishment or endorsement of religion in public schools have dwindled significantly within the past decade, Young notes the emphasis on religion in Southern culture can often make the separation between your beliefs and official duties difficult to maintain.

“We certainly know that it’s part of Southern culture,” Young said. “It’s part of my culture. We appreciate that the community wants to send good wishes to these students for another school year, we just always have to be aware of doing that in a way that’s inclusive and not exclusionary and not privileging one person’s expression and philosophy over another.”

McDaniel did not respond for comment.

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