Claiming that God “has given [her] the jurisdiction to operate with dominion” and that running schools was “a divine assignment,” Cheryl Washington has, according to the San Antonio Current, channeled millions in both federal and state funds into building the Shekinah Learning Institute, which she founded in 1996. The SLI now comprises 13 taxpayer-funded schools across the state, receiving over $17 million in taxpayer funds and helping educate approximately 2,500 “at-risk” students, according to agency filings reported by the Current.
However, as detailed in recent media reports, Washington’s 16 years as an educator have seen myriad accusations of pushing religion in the public classroom. Americans United for Separation of Church and State recently detailed the investigation its undertaken into Washington’s methods and beliefs.
According to letters released by AU, Washington’s Truth Campus, located in suburban Dallas, promoted a “a weekly optional Chapel service” for students. The school’s website also shared a video, now removed, featuring parents describing how the Truth Campus had taught their children “all the wonderful things that God is doing for them in their lives.” The school additionally informed students that, for 45 minutes on Mondays starting last February, students would need only to “bring a Bible and a notepad.”
Gregory Lipper, senior counsel for the AU, noted that even if no Bible-based lessons were taught in these schools, the SLI’s structure was unconstitutional. “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.”
Thus far, Washington has pleaded ignorance to the alleged actions at the Truth Campus, citing a “rogue” landlord as the creator of the website and attendant videos. However, in a letter to the Texas Education Agency last April, Lipper noted that “[SLI’s] promotion of and entanglement with religion is more systemic than we previously understood.”
The AU investigation also claims to have found numerous complaints about Washington’s managerial practices, including claims that Shekinah used taxpayer money to both repair and defray costs at the Shadrach Temple International Church, where Washington is the pastor. Washington also allegedly paid higher salaries to teachers who attended her church than to those who didn’t.
The AU also noted that Washington, who insists on presenting herself with the title “Dr.”, does not appear to own higher degrees from any accredited institutions. WOAI, a radio station based in San Antonio, asked Washington why she insisted on attaching the doctorate prefix to her name.
Her response: “Why not? [I am] a doctor in the Christian community.”