While students head back to class all around Texas, today marks the first day of school for a unique class of seminary students, all serving lengthy or life sentences at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Darrington Unit south of Houston.

Based on a years-old seminary program in Louisiana, the Texas program was spearheaded by veteran Texas Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) and tea party favorite Texas Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston). As the Austin American-Statesman’s Mike Ward reported Saturday, the seminary won’t receive state funding, but will be sponsored by the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and the nonprofit Heart of Texas Foundation.

The program is billed as non-denominational, but as the criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast points out, the program’s sponsors aren’t known for religious openness. “The Southwestern Theological Seminary in Fort Worth was the site of a major fight between fundamentalist Baptist factions and less dogmatic religious scholars,” Scott Henson wrote on the blog, “including Russel Dilday, the moderate president who was ousted by fundamentalists in 1994 for not toeing the hardest possible theological line.”

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