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Does a Texas Charter School Chain Use Taxpayer Money to Proselytize Students and Fund a Church?

An investigation by Americans United for Separation of Church and State suggests that Shekinah Radiance Academy schools, using public money, operate as religious institutions.

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A second major issue uncovered by Americans United is school-sponsored Bible classes. The school's website promoted "a study through James" for 45 minutes on Mondays, telling students to "bring a Bible and a notepad starting February 6th."

By offering a class of this type and asking students to bring only "a Bible and a notebook," Lipper said the school appears to be teaching the religious text from a sectarian viewpoint rather than an academic one.

The third major constitutional issue identified by Americans United is the school's name and logo. The AU letter noted that the Hebrew word "shekinah" means "God's presence," and the term is used by rabbis "in place of 'God' where the anthropomorphic expressions of the Bible were no longer regarded as proper." As for the logo, it looks to be a cross over top of a shield.

"A public entity such as Truth Campus endorses religion when it adopts a religious name or logo," the letters said.

In April, thanks to additional investigation and information revealed through a public records request, Americans United sent a second letter to the state agency to ask that it expand its investigation of Shekinah to include the religious activities of the entire Shekinah Radiance Academy system.

In the April 4 missive, Lipper described additional problems with Shekinah not mentioned in the original letter, including campuses that appear to be located in church buildings and a graduation ceremony held in a church and featuring a proselytizing guest speaker.

Americans United found that six of Shekinah Radiance Academy's campuses seem to be in buildings that are also home to active congregations, including two churches whose names are almost identical to those of the campuses they house.

For example, the Abundant Life Campus is at the same address as the Abundant Life Church in San Antonio. AU also uncovered evidence that Shekinah held at least one graduation ceremony at the Christian World Worship Center, which is also home to another Shekinah campus, and that the speaker at the ceremony in 2010 delivered a speech titled "God's Exciting Plans for You."

"Even if the Academy and its churches were generally separate," wrote Lipper, "the [First Amendment] would prohibit its campuses from holding classes or events in churches."

Also outlined in the letter were numerous accusations of impropriety by Washington, which were uncovered thanks to AU's review of complaints to the Texas Education Agency. The complaints alleged that Shekinah and Washington have "unlawfully used taxpayer funds and deployed government employees to support religious activities at Superintendent Washington's church."

Among the allegations were the following:

  • Shekinah used taxpayer money for the renovation and upkeep of Washington's church;
  • Shekinah gave school funds to defray operating costs at Washington's church;
  • school employees were told to help the church conduct its business;
  • Shekinah paid church employees with taxpayer funds; and
  • Shekinah paid higher salaries to employees who were members of Washington's church than to equally qualified employees who were not church members.

All of these activities would be serious violations if true.

"Both the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses prohibit the Academy from providing favorable treatment -- including higher salaries -- to employees who are members of the Superintendent's church," the letter said.

As of press time, the Texas Education Agency told Americans United that it is wrapping up an investigation into Shekinah's financial activities but declined to go into details. The agency also responded to AU's complaints within weeks of receiving the letters and said that it would begin to look into Shekinah's religious activities.