AUSTIN — A politically powerful megachurch in San Antonio is pushing Texas lawmakers to let its small Christian school with a history of bending the rules to field elite athletic teams join the state league for public schools. A proposal by Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, to allow private schools to join the University Interscholastic League, the dominion of the state's public schools, passed the Senate late last month. A similar measure by Rep. Frank Corte, R-San Antonio, is pending in the House.
The church behind the push is Cornerstone Christian Church, founded in 1975 by televangelist John Hagee, whose television and radio programs are broadcast throughout the U.S.
The Cornerstone Christian school has been in trouble several times in recent years with the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools over concerns about how it put together basketball squads that included several out-of-state and international players.
While the bills would allow other private schools to apply to the UIL, there's little doubt Cornerstone is driving the proposed change. Cornerstone religious and administrative leaders were the only ones to testify in support of the Senate bill.
Cornerstone officials they're pushing for the change for academic and athletic opportunities for their students. "All we're asking for is a fair playing field and be able to participate in UIL activities," said Cornerstone administrator Alan Hulme. "We want the best for our students. That's why we want to come under the umbrella of the UIL and embrace their integrity."
Last year, Hagee founded Christians United for Israel, a national lobbying group hoping to influence government on behalf of Israel. Republican Gov. Rick Perry and dozens of political candidates from both parties attended a Sunday service there two days before the 2006 election. Texas is one of only three states with separate athletic championships for public and private schools. TAPPS has about 250 member schools. The UIL has about 1,300.
Public school officials and state lawmakers have long fought to keep private schools out of the UIL, fearing the private schools could recruit athletes and bend other rules.
The state made two exceptions in 2003, allowing Jesuit schools in Dallas and Houston to join after TAPPS determined they were too big to compete in a league comprised mostly of small schools. Essentially banished from TAPPS in September 2006, Cornerstone applied for entry to the UIL and was denied. The school then filed a federal religious discrimination lawsuit to force its way in.
"Our school is going to be the very best we can make it and no one is going to prevent us from achieving excellence in any area," Hagee told his congregation when he announced the lawsuit in February.
But a lawsuit could drag on for years and the school hopes lawmakers will crack open the doors to the UIL before the legislative session ends May 28.
Patrick calls it a fairness issue to private school families whose property taxes help support public schools but are being kept out of UIL competitions.
He compared it to the days of racial discrimination in athletics, noting the Texas Western (now Texas-El Paso) team that won the 1966 NCAA basketball tournament with an all-black starting lineup.
UIL Athletic Director Charles Breithaupt said public schools are happy to play regular season games against private schools, but don't want them competing for the same championships.
"Private schools have to recruit. That's their nature," Breithaupt said. "They have to open their doors and invite people to come in. They can be as big or small as they want to be.”