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defending the First Amendment against the Christian right ...

Jews On First!

... because if Jews don't speak out, they'll think we don't mind

South Carolina church adds foot-washing to its shoe giveaway in public schools

Local Jews cite majority's indifference to church-state separation

by Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak and Jane Hunter, JewsOnFirst.org, December 20, 2007

A South Carolina church's shoe giveaway in public schools this month included ritual foot-washing "as Jesus did." That, say Jews who live in the area, is typical of local disregard of church-state separation.

The foot-washing by volunteers with the First Baptist Church of North Augusta, South Carolina, was reported last week by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

According to news reports and the church's website, the shoe giveaway, a project called Laces 4 Love, collects donations from the community and gets lists of needy children from the schools. Laces 4 Love then writes the children's parents asking for permission for the children to participate in the program and for their children's shoe sizes.

The group then goes from school to school; at each school, children are called into the lunchroom, Laces 4 Love volunteers wash their feet (with wipes, according to news accounts) and then put new socks and shoes on the children's feet.

Denials
Area school districts where the giveaways were held this month denied to local news media that there was any foot-washing or any religious content.

Nevertheless, before Americans United issued its report, the local paper, the Augusta Chronicle, published several references to the practice. In a November 28th story previewing the giveaway, the Augusta Chronicle reported in a caption beneath the photo of Mark Owens (above), who leads the church's "Laces 4 Love" project: "Before the Passover, Jesus washed the disciples' feet. In two weeks, nearly 300 volunteers will follow his example and kneel before school children to wash their feet."

Other photos (shown below on this pages) published by the Chronicle also refer to and show foot-washing.

Even as the Augusta Chronicle reported on Americans United's protest of the program, it blandly noted in a photo caption that "church members wash the children's feet, as Jesus did for his disciples."

The paper's "Up to Speed" column for December 18th reported:

The Laces 4 Love shoe drive in Aiken and Edgefield county schools sparked an uproar by Americans United, a group dedicated to the separation of church and state. The Laces 4 Love drive is sponsored by First Baptist Church of North Augusta, and the philanthropy includes a ritual foot washing for the recipients of the shoes. Americans United claims this is a violation of the separation of church and state and should not be allowed. The school systems said no proselytizing has occurred.

The nature of the foot-washing, however, is unclear. A member of the Jewish community who asked not to be identified said church members had assured her there was no ritual connected to the washing; volunteers simply cleaned the children's feet before trying on the new shoes.

A video the group made of its distribution last year -- when it was called Operation Mercy -- shows a moment of foot-washing three minutes into the clip. But the video appears to be cut to focus on happy kids and copious supplies of shoes.

The First Baptist Church said that Owens was on vacation and not available for comment.

Schools identify needy children to church group
The school districts hosting Laces 4 Love giveaways denied reports that they were giving the group lists of children who qualified for free or reduced-price lunches.

School officials in one school district declined a request by JewsOnFirst to state the policy for giving lists of students to outside groups.

But a knowledgeable source in that district, speaking off the record, said that officials at local schools identify needy students so the church can contact their families for authorization. "A letter then goes to the parent, asking their consent," he said, adding: "The school doesn't sponsor or organize it -- only facilitiates it as a way to help children."

A synagogue in Augusta, Georgia, across the river from North Augusta, in the past carried out a shoe distribution for needy school children, according to the Jewish community member. But, she said, the synagogue simply obtained a list from the school identifying shoe sizes, ages and gender. The synagogue then assembled and delivered the shoes according to the list.

Augusta's small Jewish community
The Jewish community, which is largely centered in Augusta, Georgia, is small. According to Marc Gottlieb, chairman of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Augusta, there are only 1,700 Jews in Augusta and southern South Carolina. The community's small size, Gottlieb said, "makes people not want to rock the boat" or make public issues of events like the foot-washing.

Gottlieb told JewsOnFirst that "there's a continual fight about separation of church and state" in the area and the shoe charity is just the latest instance "where people try to impose their beliefs on everybody else." (To listen to a recorded conversation with Marc Gottlieb, please click here.)

Gottlieb said he twice went before the school board to argue against a released-time program for religious education -- and the second time, he said "it was me against a busload of 50 to 60 people who were for this released-time program."

The Jewish community member who spoke of the synagogue's shoe distribution said that three large churches dominate North Augusta and everyone in town is assumed to be Christian.

JewsOnFirst has learned that there is currently a nativity scene in front of the school administration building in Augusta, Georgia; it has been there in past years as well.

Gottlieb said he expects the shoe giveaway and the annual "See You at the Pole" pray-in on school grounds to continue. Nonetheless, he said, he believes it is important to remind the Christian majority "that there are other people in the community."


Ministry ensures pupils have good shoes

By Lisa Kaylor, Augusta Chronicle, November 28, 2007

Needy Aiken and Edgefield county elementary pupils will receive new shoes Dec. 10-14. It might be the only gift some of them receive this Christmas, said Mark Owens, who started the Laces 4 Love ministry at First Baptist Church of North Augusta six years ago.

"We go in and actually remove their shoes and wash their feet like Jesus did his disciples, and we put a new pair of socks on their feet and a new pair of shoes," he said. "For many of these kids, the shoes we take off of them will be the same pair we put on them (last year)." Continue.

Conversation with Marc Gottlieb
Augusta Jewish official talks of church-state separation

by Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, JewsOnFirst.org, December 17, 2007

In this conversation prompted by the Laces 4 Love shoe give-away, Marc Gottlieb, chairman of Jewish Community Relations Council of Augusta discusses his efforts to educate community on church-state separation.

Ministry defies critics, gives shoes to pupils
Lifting spirits with new soles

By J. Scott Trubey, The Augusta Chronicle, December 14, 2007

A group of North Augusta missionaries Thursday donated shoes to Greendale Elementary School pupils and as school officials had promised, no religious strings appeared to be attached.

In all, 44 pupils -- roughly 10 percent of the school's student population -- received new shoes from volunteers with Laces 4 Love, a ministry of First Baptist Church of North Augusta.

School officials from Aiken and Edgefield counties came under criticism Tuesday from a national organization that says the ministry's involvement with schools is a violation of church and state separations. Continue.

Schools say no religion is allowed in shoe giveaway

By J. Scott Trubey, The Augusta Chronicle, December 13, 2007

School officials in Aiken and Edgefield counties said Wednesday that no religious rituals are allowed as part of a church-sponsored shoe giveaway program criticized for being an unlawful blend of church and state.

The school superintendents of both Aiken and Edgefield counties say they are complying with legal requirements as they relate to the 6-year-old Laces 4 Love shoe giveaway for needy youth.

Laces 4 Love, a ministry of First Baptist Church of North Augusta, provides about 12,000 pairs of shoes to disadvantaged pupils. It came under criticism Tuesday from officials with Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a national organization that said the giveaway violates the law.

One major issue, officials with Americans United said, is a ritual foot-washing ministry members had said would be part of the shoe donation. Shoes are being delivered this week to pupils in 25 schools in both counties. Continue.

Group fights shoe giveaway
Letters warn school systems about ministry work

By J. Scott Trubey, The Augusta Chronicle, December 12, 2007

NORTH AUGUSTA --- A national organization is protesting a church-sponsored shoe giveaway program in some schools in Aiken and Edgefield counties, saying it violates the legal separation of church and state.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent letters Tuesday urging the school systems in Edgefield and Aiken counties to end their involvement with Laces 4 Love, a First Baptist Church of North Augusta ministry that provides about 12,000 pairs of shoes to disadvantaged pupils.

"You just can't allow a religious group to carry on what it sees as a ministry of its church inside of a public school," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of Americans United.

Laces 4 Love has provided shoes to pupils for six years. Shoes are being delivered this week to pupils in 25 schools in both counties. Continue.

From the heart, for the soles
Church presents children with shoes

By Julia Sellers, The Augusta Chronicle, December 15, 2006

BELVEDERE - Six-year-old Alex Thomas sat on a metal folding chair in the Belvedere Elementary School cafeteria Thursday morning, pulling goodies from a Christmas bag.

There were sun shades and Spider-Man bedroom slippers, and a shoebox with "Reebok" across the top.

"Awesome!" Alex screamed as he saw the shoes inside. "Do I get those today? Right now?"

He did, thanks to Operation Mercy, sponsored by North Augusta First Baptist Church.

The navy blue-and-white basketball shoes were perfect, he said. Blue is his favorite color, and he loves playing basketball.

Ashley Sullivan - one of about 50 volunteers at the school - helped Alex put on his new shoes, even taking off his socks and washing his feet with baby wipes before he put them on. That way, volunteers said, everything is new. Continue.

Group objects to foot-washing in S.C. school shoe giveaway

Associated Press, The First Amendment Center, December 14, 2007

Columbia, S.C. — A church-state separation group this week asked two South Carolina school districts to halt a church-run program that gives needy students new shoes and socks in part because the youths apparently undergo ritual foot-washing as part of the giveaway. School officials said Dec. 11 that the claim was off base and overblown.

Laces4Love, a program run by the First Baptist Church of North Augusta, distributes new shoes and socks before the holidays each year to students identified by school officials as in need of new footwear.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent letters Dec. 10 to school officials in Aiken and Edgefield counties, asking that they put a stop to the program that "subjects disadvantaged students to ritual foot-washing as part of a shoe giveaway." Continue.

Americans United Protests South Carolina Ministry's Foot-Washing Ritual At Public Schools
Religious Liberty Watchdog Group Objects To Baptist Program That Subjects Needy Students To Ritual Before Providing Them New Shoes

News release, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, December 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. Continue.

Shoe Giveaway at South Carolina Schools Called Unconstitutional
'Americans United has once again used its bully tactics to try to prohibit a worthwhile effort.'

Focus on the Family, December 19, 2007

Americans United for Separation of Church and State is threatening two South Carolina school districts with legal action if they continue to allow a church-sponsored shoe giveaway.

Laces 4 Love began in 2001 after founding members noticed schoolchildren wearing shoes that didn’t fit or were inappropriate for cold weather. The group has distributed more than 12,000 pairs of free shoes to students throughout Edgefield and Aiken counties.

The Alliance Defense Fund is offering free legal defense to the school districts. Continue.