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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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Although Shekinah claims that the agency has cleared it of these accusations, it also opposes the state's release of documents from the actual investigation.

Lipper said that Americans United is continuing to provide new information to the agency as it becomes available.

Shekinah, meanwhile, attempted to defend itself -- by blaming the Truth Campus for essentially going rogue. In an April 10 letter to the Texas Education Agency, attorneys for the school did not completely deny AU's allegations; instead they claimed that Shekinah either was not aware of Truth Campus's religious activities or didn't authorize them.

"[Shekinah] did not promote school-sponsored chapel services or other religious activities; did not offer or promote any weekly Bible-study class; and the logo for all Shekinah Radiance Academy campuses is a dove with olive branch, a non-religious and accepted symbol of peace," the letter said.

Shekinah's attorneys went on to claim that all of the issues raised by Americans United occurred without Shekinah's knowledge. For example, the charter school claimed that the "Landlord and Affiliates" of Truth Campus were solely responsible for all of the school's Web content.

"Landlord and Affiliates appear to have operated and maintained this website without the authorization or consent of [Shekinah], and even went so far as to post official school documents on the website," the letter said. "This content was not produced or posted to the website with consent of [Shekinah]."

The religious logo at Truth Campus can also be blamed on -- you guessed it -- the school's landlord and affiliates, who acted "without [Shekinah]'s authorization." Shekinah even denied that its name is religious, saying that Shekinah means "to settle, inhabit, or dwell."

Lipper flatly rejected that argument.

"The most common understanding of the word is clearly religious in nature," he said, "and that understanding is confirmed by Shekinah's ongoing promotion of religion."

Shekinah's overall argument didn't pass muster with Lipper, either.

"Shekinah claims that, as to the promotion of religion at its Truth Campus, its landlord 'went rogue' and set up a website and created promotional videos (documenting religious promotion) -- all without any knowledge or involvement by Shekinah," he said. "That is extremely hard to believe. And if it's true, it's in some ways even more troubling, because it would mean that Shekinah is putting its head in the sand when taxpayer money is misspent."

Church-state problems such as those at Shekinah are becoming all too common. Thanks in part to bipartisan backing (including the support of President Barack Obama), charter schools -- public schools operated outside the traditional public school system by private contractors or other organizations -- are growing rapidly in the United States. But with that increase -- and less than adequate governmental oversight -- comes an increase in the number of schools with constitutional problems. (See " Charter For Controversy")

Washington has not only defended charter schools -- she has even advocated for Texas to allow for more. In 2009, she testified at a hearing before the Texas Senate's Education Committee, seeking elimination of the state cap on the number of such schools.

"The mounting demand for charter schools shows they are effective, and that our Texas communities need, and want, options within the public school system," she said. (Legislators ultimately ignored Washington and didn't raise the cap.)

Washington is not the most credible source on the virtues of charters. WOAI did an investigative report on her in May 2011, including interviews with several former employees of Shekinah schools who raised troubling allegations.

"Washington is using public funds and probably state and federal funds for her own personal use," a complainant told the TV station.