GRAPEVINE, Texas — In this suburb 20 miles northwest of Dallas, some religious and political leaders have framed a nonpartisan school board election this week as a spiritual battle between forces of good and evil.
During a Sunday worship service, Robert Morris, a megachurch pastor and spiritual adviser to former President Donald Trump, warned his congregation that Satan was at work in the Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District and other area schools, then shared the names of Christian school board candidates who would stand against such demonic forces.
David Barton, a leading promoter of the claim that America was founded as a Christian nation, recently spoke at a local theater, urging followers of Jesus to “go on the offensive” to restore prayer and biblical values in classrooms.
And at a church-based political rally ahead of Saturday’s vote, Rafael Cruz — a pastor and the father of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas — called on believers to reclaim “territory that the devil has stolen from us” by electing “committed Christians.”
“There is an evil agenda,” Cruz said. “We are the only thing that stands between the destruction of America or the revival of America.”
Voters in the Grapevine-Colleyville school district will choose among three slates of candidates in Saturday’s school board election.Danielle Villasana for NBC News
This coordinated and well-funded campaign to exalt God in the halls of the Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District, or GCISD, has divided local residents and raised alarm among religious liberty advocates who oppose what they view as a growing embrace of Christian nationalism in America.
The race has, in effect, split the community in three. There’s a slate of school board candidates backed by a far-right Christian cellphone company that’s affiliated with Cruz and Barton. There’s another group of candidates supported by a political action committee and local nonprofit opposed to religious indoctrination in schools. And there’s a third slate of moderate conservatives who say they oppose the influence of PACs of any kind in local elections.
At a series of recent candidate forums, the debate over religion and education rarely came up, with candidates instead focused on recent teacher departures, shoring up the budget and changes to the district’s dual-language program. But behind the scenes, on social media and inside churches, the issue has been at the forefront.
Kimberly Phoenix is running for the GCISD school board with the backing of groups that oppose forcing Christian values and religious symbols in public schools.Danielle Villasana for NBC news“Everyone deserves to come to a public school and feel safe and feel like they fit in,” Phoenix said.
Danielle Villasana for NBC News
Kimberly Phoenix, a Grapevine-Colleyville parent who’s running with the support of organizations opposed to forcing religion in schools, has campaigned on a promise to reverse recent changes in the district, including restrictions on discussions of gender and race. She believes outside groups have sowed division in the community by stoking baseless fears about teachers indoctrinating students with ungodly values.
“I believe in the separation of church and state,” said Phoenix, a Christian who has primarily voted for Republicans in past elections. “Everyone deserves to come to a public school and feel safe and feel like they fit in.”
In response to that stance, a conservative voter recently accused Phoenix on social media of supporting “gay porn in our school libraries” and “counselors convincing our kids” to change genders.
“It’s gotten ugly,” Phoenix said.
The bitter division in Grapevine-Colleyville is emblematic of a broader nationwide battle over LGBTQ inclusion in education and the role of public schools in imparting religious values.
As Grapevine-Colleyville voters head to the polls, state lawmakers in Texas are debating a bill that would require the Ten Commandments to be displayed in every classroom, and another that would force schools to schedule time for students and teachers to pray or read the Bible. States across the country are contemplating legislation that would give parents public funds to send their children to private religious schools. And in Oklahoma, Roman Catholic organizers are pushing to open the nation’s first publicly funded Christian charter school — a bid designed to challenge the separation of church and state before the U.S. Supreme Court.
As voters head to the polls, legislators in Texas are debating a bill that would the Ten Commandments to be displayed in every classroom.Danielle Villasana for NBC NewsPeople head into the Grapevine Public Library during early voting to cast ballots in the GCISD school board election.Danielle Villasana for NBC News
David Brockman, a scholar of religion at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, said these efforts are rooted in Christian nationalism — the belief that America was founded as an explicitly Christian nation and that Christians are called on to re-establish God as the head of government and society.
“If they want to take the nation back, take our country back as they put it,” Brockman said, “one particularly effective way would be to educate the next generation to share their beliefs.”
The fight over faith and politics in Grapevine-Colleyville can be traced back to a year ago, when Patriot Mobile Action, a political action committee bankrolled by a far-right Christian cellphone company, spent nearly $500,000 backing a slate of 11 school board candidates across North Texas, winning every race and gaining majority control of four area school boards, including GCISD.
Afterward, Grapevine-Colleyville officials hung “In God We Trust” posters donated by Patriot Mobile in every district building, and the board voted 4-3 to adopt a sweeping policy banning lessons on systemic racism, prohibiting teachers from discussing “gender fluidity” and limiting the rights of transgender children to be called by their preferred names and pronouns at school.
Patriot Mobile donated “In God We Trust” posters to several North Texas school districts last year, including GCISD and in the neighboring city of Southlake.Twitter via PatriotMobile
“We’re not here on this Earth to please man,” Leigh Wambsganss, Patriot Mobile Action’s leader, said in a radio interview last year celebrating the election victories and policy changes. “We’re here to please God.”
This spring, Patriot Mobile — which has openly embraced the label of Christian nationalism — is once again backing a slate of three Grapevine-Colleyville candidates, with the goal of solidifying and expanding its influence on the board. The PAC has spent $130,000 on flyers and get-out-the-vote efforts in GCISD, including more than $88,000 paid to a pair of heavy-hitter GOP consulting firms that have worked on campaigns for Ted Cruz and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — once again bringing sophisticated national-level political strategies to a local school board race.
This time, a coalition of progressive parents and disillusioned conservatives have deployed a political action committee of their own, the Texas Nonpartisan PAC, which has spent about $30,000 supporting candidates who are promising to move the district in a different direction.
Richard Newton, a former Colleyville mayor running for school board with Patriot Mobile’s backing, said he supported the board’s policy on gender fluidity and student pronouns because it gave teachers clarity on how to handle difficult situations, and because he said it protected students who “may feel very uncomfortable about what other students want to do.”
“Public schools are there to give every student, not just some, every student across the whole spectrum, an opportunity for a great education,” Newton said when approached outside an early voting site. “The other thing … is to teach the students what it is to be a great citizen, a good citizen, and to teach the founding documents.”
A coalition of progressive parents and disillusioned conservatives hopes to defeat a slate of Patriot Mobile-backed school board candidates.Danielle Villasana for NBC News
Newton declined to say whether he believed public schools should instill Christian values or whether he supported setting aside time for prayer during the school day.
“That is not an issue in this election,” Newton said, adding that he did not seek Patriot Mobile’s endorsement and had not spoken to the group. (His campaign has hired the same national consulting groups as Patriot Mobile, according to public disclosures.)
Patriot Mobile and its surrogates, in contrast, have set this election’s stakes in starkly religious terms. During a recent sermon at Patriot Mobile’s corporate office in Grapevine, which the company filmed and posted on YouTube, pastor Cruz warned that “our children are being destroyed” by “an evil agenda” in public schools.
“It’s gotten to the point that they are telling girls you’re not really a girl, you’re a boy,” Cruz said.
Patriot Mobile also sponsored the March lecture in Grapevine by Barton, a self-taught historian and founder of WallBuilders, a group dedicated to promoting the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation. Several Patriot Mobile-backed school board members and current candidates were in the audience as Barton encouraged them to allow Christian prayer and the Ten Commandments in classrooms.
“We can now go back to teaching things we haven’t been able to teach in 50 years,” Barton said, before arguing that public schools should present the biblical creation narrative as an alternative to the science of evolution.
Wambsganss, the executive director of Patriot Mobile Action, did not respond to a message requesting an interview.
Patriot Mobile’s focus on injecting religion into local politics and recent decisions by members of the Grapevine-Colleyville school board to restrict classroom content and publicly attack teachers have turned some conservative Christian voters against the group.
Kim Slater, the parent of a middle school-aged student, said she voted for all of the Patriot Mobile-backed candidates last year because she’s a conservative and believed that they would improve the district.
But Slater, who’s a Christian, is bothered by the group’s emphasis on imposing their version of religious morality into schools, which she believes has led to a decline in academic rigor. Grapevine-Colleyville teachers have reported having to pull down entire classroom libraries to comply with board policies, and Slater said she has to give consent in writing anytime her middle school-aged child asks to read a book above grade level.
“I can tell you flat out that I will not vote for a single candidate that is aligned with Patriot Mobile,” Slater said. “I do not think they are serving an agenda that serves the kids in our school district.”
The heated rhetoric has drawn an unlikely demographic into a local, off-cycle election typically decided by older voters: high schoolers.
Teddy, a senior at Grapevine High School, led a walkout protesting the school board’s anti-transgender policies last year.Danielle Villasana for NBC News
Teddy, a nonbinary student at Grapevine High School, was one of several students who turned 18 in time to vote in the school board election this week. The senior, who led a student walkout to protest the school board’s anti-transgender policies last year, said it felt good to cast their first ballot ever for candidates who support LGBTQ inclusion.
“Not everyone in this country, not everyone in the state, not everyone in the district is Christian,” said Teddy, who asked to be identified only by their first name because they’ve been bullied at school and feared online harassment. “The idea of pushing Christianity into these places, that is simply oppressive.”
Young people aren’t the only ones working to turn out voters.
Last week at Gateway Church, the names of Patriot Mobile-backed school board candidates flashed on giant screens above the pulpit as pastor Morris encouraged his congregation to pray for fellow Christians running for office and to vote their faith.
Parishioners raise their hands at a worship service at Gateway Church in Southlake, Texas, moments before pastor Robert Morris provided the congregation with a list of school board candidates to pray for.Danielle Villasana for NBC News
“Gateway Church does not support or endorse any candidate or any political party, but we do endorse biblical principles,” Morris said. “And many of you see what Satan has been trying to do even in our school systems.”
Sergio Harris, who has worn a purple “WWJD?” — What would Jesus do? — wristband as he’s campaigned door-to-door for a seat on the Grapevine-Colleyville board, thinks he knows why his name wasn’t listed on screen among his fellow believers.
Teddy and their mom, center, speak with school board candidate Sergio Harris outside a voting site.Danielle Villasana for NBC NewsHarris, a Christian, said he doesn’t support “pushing my religion” in public schools, “especially when you have people that are Muslim or Hindu or any other religion.”Danielle Villasana for NBC News
“I hate the narrative that they push that they are the ones that are bestowed or chosen by God to fix education,” said Harris, a high school social studies teacher who’s in a three-way race against a Patriot Mobile-backed candidate and a third contender.
Harris said his faith calls him to be kind to everyone, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation or religious beliefs. That’s one moral value that he thinks should be reflected in public education.
“If we’re really going to truly walk as Jesus walked,” Harris said, “then we need to not just talk the talk, but also walk the walk.”
Harris leaves Grapevine Library with his son after a day of early voting.Danielle Villasana for NBC News
CORRECTION (Oct. 4, 2023, 3:23 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the amount of money Patriot Mobile Action spent in school board elections in North Texas in spring 2022. It was nearly $500,000, not $600,000.
Mike Hixenbaugh is a senior investigative reporter for NBC News, based in Houston.
Antonia Hylton is a correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC.