While Advantage Academy campuses in the Dallas, Texas-region are "God's schools" according to founder and former pastor Allen Beck, the public schools are being criticized by Wisconsin-based watchdog group Freedom From Religion Foundation for putting the Bible in every subject and for promoting one particular religion.
Advantage Academy is one of Texas' oldest charter schools after starting in 1998. Charter schools were authorized by Texas legislators in 1995 to provide an alternative to traditional public schools. Charter schools can hold classes in a church; they can be run by preachers, according to the Dallas News. But they can't promote a particular religion, said Texas Education Agency spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson. The academy enrolls more than 1,800 students at four campuses -- one in Dallas, two in Grand Prairie and one in Waxahachie.
Culbertson said, for instance, students can read the Bible for class -- but only in a historical or literary context, not a religious one. Violations in this area could put Advantage Academy's public funding at risk.
Freedom From Religion Foundation representatives filed a complaint last week with the Texas Education Agency, communicating they had "serious constitutional concerns" with Advantage Academy. "We ask that the TEA investigate Advantage Academy and take action to prevent its schools from endorsing Christianity to its students," said the complaint from the nonprofit group that works to keep church and state separate.
In a statement Friday, Advantage Academy school officials said they follow the law: "Advantage Academy is neutral and does not endorse any church or religious practice."
Patrick Elliott, a staff attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said his group heard complaints from people who live near Advantage Academy, so they got involved. They found a public video of Beck, the school's founder, giving a sermon to the Brazilian Christian Church in Carrollton last November. In the video, he talked of a desire to bring "the Bible, prayer and patriotism back into the public school system legally."
He said: "This is God's school. How did I get this school? I attacked the gates of the city based on grace from God. I attacked the educational system."
In its statement, Advantage Academy said Beck spoke at the church as an individual, and not in any school capacity. "We respect and celebrate his First Amendment rights and freedom of religion and assembly, as we do all people."
Other charter schools in the Dallas area also are said to have religious ties. Turkish Muslims helped found Harmony Public Schools. Critics have accused Harmony of having ties to a Turkish imam named Fethullah Gulen, but school leaders deny there's any connection. Some other Dallas-area charter schools, including Life School and Golden Rule Charter School, were founded by pastors and have held classes in church buildings.
Freedom From Religion Foundation representatives filed a different complaint in June against Newman International Academy, a charter school based in Arlington, indicating the school adopted a "blatantly religious song," which includes the line, "May God bless our school," and promoted religious events including a national day of prayer.
TEA officials are reviewing both Texas complaints.