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Church-state watchdog claims local taxpayer-funded charter school more parochial than public

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"Because God has positioned me and put me in this garden called San Antonio, he has given me the jurisdiction to operate with dominion in San Antonio, amen?" – Cheryl Washington

In late January, Cheryl Washington spoke to the local KROV-hosted radio show Rhema Gospel Express outlining her God-given mandate to change San Antonio and ultimately the state of Texas. Washington, a pastor at the Universal City-based Shadrach Temple International, spoke with conviction, saying God had given her "dominion," power, and authority to fertilize and grow the Almighty's garden here in San Antonio.

"That garden for me seems to be the education system that he has me in."

After moving from New York to San Antonio in 1987, Washington in 1996 established and became the superintendent of Shekinah Learning Institute, an educational umbrella that's grown to cover 13 taxpayer-funded charter schools across Texas, many of which are located in and around San Antonio. Shekinah's two districts on file with the Texas Education Agency, the Shekinah Radiance Academy District and the Radiance Academy of Learning District, drew just over $15 million in state funds and another $2.3 million in federal cash for the 2009-2010 school year to educate some 2,000 Texas students, according to agency filings, which list both districts as academically acceptable.

But national watchdog Americans United for Separation of Church and State began sniffing around complaints over Shekinah's finances earlier this year, concerned Washington's schools had begun to either tacitly or outright approve religious pedagogy, making Shekinah more parochial than public, and all on the taxpayer dime.

Americans United first sent complaints to the TEA this February after receiving allegations of school-sponsored religion at Shekinah's suburban Dallas campus, referred to as the institute's Truth Campus. "They were doing things that were so clearly off-limits for a publicly funded institution," said Americans United attorney Greg Lipper, who has his own history with Texas church-state battles, having served as lead council on the highly charged Medina Valley prayer-in-schools federal court battle last year.

Americans United pointed to the Truth Campus' now-shuttered website, which boasted of "a weekly optional Chapel service for students" along with a promotional video featuring Truth Campus parents describing how those services taught students "about all the wonderful things that God is doing for them in their lives." The website also promoted an after-school Bible study class at the campus.
Offices for both Washington and Shekinah's San Antonio-based attorney Joseph Hoffer rebuffed calls for comment from the Current this week.

Hoffer, however, wrote to Americans United and the TEA in April denying charges that Shekinah had violated the First Amendment's firewall between government and religion, saying Truth Campus' landlord had created the website on his own, without the knowledge or approval of the district, to offer and promote the religious classes and services. Hoffer wrote that Shekinah "recognizes the seriousness of the allegations raised by Americans United for Separation of Church and State," but that at the Truth Campus problems appeared to stem from a "misunderstanding by the Landlord of SLI's public school nature and of the relevant legal requirements placed on SLI." He added that the Dallas-area campus ordered the landlord to take down the website and halt any chapel or Bible services aimed at students.

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