Dec 11, 2007

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has urged public school officials in South Carolina to discontinue a church-run program that subjects disadvantaged students to ritual foot-washing as part of a shoe giveaway.

In letters sent Dec. 10 to officials in Aiken and Edgefield Counties, Americans United objects to the “Laces4Love” ministry run by the First Baptist Church of North Augusta. The program provides new shoes to needy children but asks them to participate in the Christian rite of foot-washing.

Americans United said the activity clearly violates the constitutional separation of church and state. The school districts, AU said, should discontinue their involvement in any program that seeks to sponsor proselytism or religious rituals.

“Providing poor children with new shoes is a worthy endeavor,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “But the manner in which the church is doing so is blatantly unconstitutional. School officials must ensure that needy children are not coerced into religious activities.”

In the letters to superintendents and other school officials, Americans United notes that the director of the Laces4Love ministry told North Augusta Today, “We just feel like God’s called us to reach as many children as we can with the Gospel of Christ and a pair of shoes.”

Ministry director Mark Owens also told the newspaper that First Baptist Church volunteers enter the public schools, and before fitting the needy students with new shoes, “wash their feet like Jesus did his disciples.”

The Nov. 28 news article reported that the Baptist ministry contacts public schools each year in early fall asking them to identify children who may need new shoes. Ministry volunteers then distribute the shoes and conduct the foot-washing rituals on school grounds over several days in December.

This year, ministry volunteers are scheduled to enter 25 schools in Aiken and Edgefield counties Dec. 10-14 to distribute shoes to as many as 12,000 students.

The AU letter, written by Americans United Litigation Counsel Heather Weaver, Senior Litigation Counsel Alex Luchenitser and Legal Director Ayesha Khan, states that although the goal of Laces4Love is “admirable and important,” the ministry’s accompanying religious activities at public schools are constitutionally problematic.

“[A]s long as the ministry continues to condition receipt of the shoes on participation in religious activity, or aims to distribute any religious message to students receiving shoes,” Americans United asserted, “public school districts may not participate in or facilitate operation of the ministry in any way, including by providing a list of needy children, hosting the shoe-fittings and foot-washings in school facilities, or promoting the ministry’s activities.”

Americans United asked the school officials to respond by the close of business on Dec. 11 on whether and how they would “proceed to avoid the imminent constitutional violations.”

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.