After new Gaines Elementary School principal Luther McDaniel invited a group of pastors to take part in a religious event held by the Athens Prayer Network on campus, the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia stepped in, calling the event “constitutionally concerning.” Admitting he had “pushed the boundaries” of the separation of religion and education in public schools, McDaniel apologized, and the Athens Prayer Network moved the Aug. 10 vigil to Green Acres Baptist Church. The event is especially notable because the Clarke County School District approved a religious tolerance policy in December 2018 to ensure that everyone’s beliefs were respected.
The incident is reflective of Georgia’s history and culture and highlights the blurred relationship between church and state.
As a practicing Christian who grew up in a Catholic family, I understand McDaniel’s desire to share his experiences with his religious community and ask for prayers for the school’s improvement. Furthermore, I do not think this necessarily points to any character flaws in McDaniel. As he explained, he did not intend for this to be a school-endorsed event, though it was perceived that way. However, the event does raise further questions as to the line between religion and government in Georgia schools.
A part of the Bible Belt, Georgia is a heavily Christian state. According to Pew Research Center, 79% of Georgians identify as Christian, including 67% who identify as Protestant and 38% who identify as evangelicals. For many Georgians, religion is a central part of their lives, and Christianity permeates through the state’s culture. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. At times, however, Christian culture can blend with the government in inappropriate ways. For proof, one need only look at the continuing restrictions on alcohol sales on Sundays in Georgia. An outgrowth of “blue laws,” Georgia still prohibits alcohol sales before noon except at restaurants in certain cities.
In schools specifically, there have been repeated questionable practices regarding religious expression. For example, when he coached football at the University of Georgia, Mark Richt allowed his brother-in-law to serve as team chaplain. In Douglas County, football players took part in a mass baptism at the school’s stadium in 2015. There are also less overt ways religion impacts schools, such as the traditional moment of silence in schools, which was seen as a more secular and neutral alternative to school prayer.
When government officials allow their personal religious beliefs to influence their decisions, they, often unintentionally, limit others’ religious liberty. By passing laws that align with one’s religious views, the government forces those with different beliefs to adhere to the rules set by a religion they are not a part of. To some extent, this is unavoidable. Religion often serves as a moral guide, and this inevitably affects how government officials view what is right and wrong. I, myself, struggle at times to separate my personal religious beliefs from what would be the best policy.
In the Gaines Elementary incident, McDaniel made a mistake, but it should serve as a reminder to Georgians of the, at times, uncomfortable relationship between religion and government. Though challenging, we must ensure that we do not allow our religion to overshadow others’ beliefs.