Schools say no religion is allowed in shoe giveaway

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.

"(Edgefield County schools) are not aware of any 'religious foot-washing ceremony' performed when the children receive their shoes," Superintendent Mary Rice-Crenshaw stated in a news release. Though "many of our children did wipe their feet before placing the clean socks and shoes on."

In an article published Nov. 28 in North Augusta Today , ministry founder Mark Owens said volunteers remove the children's old shoes and wash their feet, as Jesus did for his disciples at Passover.

Needy pupils identified with the help of the schools have letters sent by the organization to their parents asking permission to give shoes to them.

The Rev. Gary C. Redding, the senior pastor of North Augusta First Baptist, directed all comment Wednesday to Aiken County school officials.

Aiken County schools Superintendent Bill Gallman on Wednesday again denied that any proselytizing and foot-washing by ministry volunteers has occurred. Students are provided sanitary wipes to clean their feet.

Jeremy Leaming, a spokesman for Americans United, said Wednesday that the group received Aiken County's response and found it unsatisfactory.