NEW ELLENTON --- 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.
Greendale Elementary counselor Gareth Hegler said the shoe giveaway lifts the spirits of many of the school's pupils.
"It's wonderful for them," he said. "It lifts their morale. It's a morale booster. For a lot of these kids it's a big part of their holiday."
Americans United for the Separation of Church and State contends the ministry and its shoe giveaway violates the law. A major issue, the group says, is a foot washing ritual that ministry organizers said in a Nov. 28 newspaper article was part of the giveaway.
Officials from Aiken and Edgefield counties have denied any religious rituals have taken place, and an Augusta Chronicle reporter present at Greendale Elementary did not witness any Laces 4 Love volunteers performing religious rituals or proselytizing Thursday. Pupils were provided sanitary wipes by the ministry to clean their own feet.
Throughout the week, Laces 4 Love has donated shoes at 25 schools in Aiken and Edgefield counties. They will have donated shoes to 12,000 impoverished youths by this afternoon.
Laces 4 Love volunteers at the school declined to comment, and officials at First Baptist have directed all comment to Aiken County school officials.
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