Why did the taxpayer-funded Weatherford College, a community college in Texas, donate “39 acres” of land, six buildings, and a “large parking lot” to a private Christian institution? That’s the question the Freedom From Religion Foundation wants to know because they believe that transfer is unconstitutional.
Over a year ago, Weatherford College donated its entire School of Cosmetology to Community Christian School. The old cosmetology school was located at Fort Wolters Army Air Base, a bit of a drive from the main campus, but it moved to a different building on campus last year, freeing up all that space. In November, Weatherford College agreed to just give all that land to the Christian school; they apparently received nothing in return.
At the new site [of the Christian school], a $1.2 million remodeling of the 49,000-square-foot main building is the next focus, and the school is seeking donations for that mission.
“We have an architect and contractors ready to go,” [Head of School Doug] Jefferson said. “We need money. God gave us the property, God will give us the money.”
Except God didn’t give them the property. Trustees at a government-funded college did. Which is why, in December, FFRF attorney Chris Line requested all public records involving the transfer.
… Weatherford College has apparently given public property to Community Christian School at no cost, providing a special benefit to Community Christian School.
The government cannot subsidize religion or dispense special financial benefits to religious organizations… When a public college transfers public land to a church for free it is impermissibly forcing taxpayers to support religion.
If our understanding of this matter is correct, Weatherford College has violated the Establishment Clause by enriching a religious school using public resources.
Since that request was made in early December, the college has asked Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Christian nationalist, for guidance about whether or not they have to comply with all the demands.
But some of the requests have already been met and they tell a very disturbing story. (No wonder the school wants to prevent more details from becoming public.)
According to FFRF, Community Christian School asked for the price of the building housing the cosmetology school back in April of 2021, with the intention of buying it. That would have been legal, assuming other parties had the opportunity to make the same request. But in the months to follow, it appears that the college agreed to hand over the land. The specifics are currently unknown.
What we do know is that, by November of 2022, the free transfer was a done deal:
The emails FFRF did receive show a clear intent by the public college to benefit the Christian school. A Nov. 30, 2022, email from Brent Baker, the vice president of institutional advancement at Weatherford College, included a public statement from the college noting that the college had received the land from the federal government. “The federal government gifted the property to the college in the 1970s and thousands of students benefited over the years. Now, nearly 50 years later, the college is very pleased that [Community Christian School] will be able to use the property to the benefit of their students for years to come.”
Did other groups have the opportunity to bid on the property?
Would a Muslim school have been granted the same privilege?
Why didn’t the school take money for that land, which could have been used to help current and future community college students?
What doesn’t the public school want the public to see?
As it stands, it’s shady at best and possibly unconstitutional.
“No public funds should go for the support of religious schools or ministries under our secular Constitution and the Texas state Constitution,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The records released by Weatherford College do not paint the full picture of the ‘donation.’”
If Ken Paxton’s past is any indication of what he’ll do now, no doubt he’ll help the college cover up any details that shine a light on the decision-making process here. I would love to be wrong about that. But the facts we already know suggest something wildly improper going on. The college had a chance to sell a lot of property, make a good chunk of money, and help its own students. Instead, they just handed it over to a religious group which will use the building as a fundraising tool—even if they’re looking for $1.2 million to renovate the place, it’s not like there will be a cap on donations accepted.
Right now, there are far more questions than answers. The college trustees, perhaps with the help of Texas Republicans, are hoping they can avoid accountability.