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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.

This story originally appeared in Church & State, the magazine published by Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Sign up for their e-mail newsletter here.

Dr. Cheryl A. Washington, superintendent of a group of taxpayer-funded charter schools in Texas, says her mission is to "leave her children an inheritance."

But what exactly does she mean by that?

"I know it's part of my nature to bust a move and take a risk," she said during a radio interview with Rhema Gospel Express. "So what's in me, when it's imparted into the youth that I serve, then they become those future entrepreneurs that will not be afraid to take a risk…and know that they can do all things through Christ."

Washington came to San Antonio in 1987 and founded the Shekinah Learning Institute in 1996. She told Rhema Gospel Express that God directed her into education, so she founded her network of public charter schools. There are now more than a dozen campuses in the Lone Star State, most of them in or around San Antonio.

The schools had a cumulative budget in 2010-2011 of at least $12.63 million, according to documents on Shekinah's website. Some 2,500 "at-risk" students are enrolled, and Washington earns $250,000 annually, according to WOAI, the NBC affiliate in San Antonio.

Washington is also the pastor of Shadrach Temple International Church, a Universal City, Texas, congregation affiliated with Ohio preacher Rod Parsley's World Harvest Ministerial Alliance. She said during the interview with Rhema Gospel Express that running schools is "a divine assignment."

It's no surprise, then, that an ongoing investigation conducted by Americans United suggests that the Shekinah Radiance Academy -- including its Truth Campus, a school located in the Dallas suburb of Royse City -- operates as if it were a publicly funded religious institution.

Evidence gathered as of press time indicated that the school promoted weekly chapel services, offered weekly Bible study classes and used a religious name and logo, all of which could be violations of the Constitution's First Amendment.

In Feb. 27 letters to Washington and the Texas Education Agency, Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper detailed the constitutionally problematic behavior and demanded that these activities stop.

On the Truth Campus's website, Lipper notes, the organization said it is a public school that is "100% funded by the state of Texas." Yet Americans United found that the school offers an optional weekly chapel service for its students. A promotional video on the website featured parents explaining how the chapel services teach students "about all the wonderful things that God is doing for them in their lives." (The Truth Campus website has since been removed from the Internet.)

The AU letters note that devotional activities at a public school are violations of the First Amendment.

"In promoting religious chapel services," wrote Lipper, "Truth Campus is violating the U.S. Supreme Court's command that the [First Amendment] prohibits public schools from sponsoring religious activities, including prayer services, whether they are led by school personnel or by third parties."

The AU attorney also dispelled the myth that the services would be permissible if part of a "release time" program, which is a Supreme Court-sanctioned scheme whereby public schools can allow students to leave the campus during the day for religious instruction elsewhere.

"Truth Campus's promotion of religious services is unconstitutional even if the services themselves take place during 'release time,'" the AU letters said. "Courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have reiterated that 'release time' does not cure otherwise impermissible public school endorsement of religious services."