A black and white photo of a chaplain from the side

Everything you need to know about public school chaplain bills

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Texas lawmakers are once again showing the rest of the country the wrong direction to head into.

The Lone Star State passed a shocking law late last year that requires every school district to vote on whether to create a chaplain program for district students, whereby unlicensed chaplains work in mental health capacities. This law would allow chaplains to be hired either as paid or volunteer school guidance counselors while exempting them from meeting the significant academic and other requirements demanded of bona fide counselors. The law provides only one minimal safeguard: the prohibition of chaplains who are on the sex offender registry. 

The argument offered was that school counselors are in short supply, so schools need additional adults with some sort of “counseling” experience. But the problem is that the unconstitutional law invites school districts to hire clergy to proselytize public school students. Schools cannot facilitate or support meetings where adults provide religious guidance to students on campus during the school day. The Texas law does not require parental consent or prohibit chaplains from taking advantage of students at their most vulnerable moments with the aim of converting them.

The force behind the Texas bill and others being introduced around the country is the National School Chaplain Association (NSCA), which describes itself as a “Christian chaplain ministry.” It is a subsidiary of a group called Mission Generation Inc., whose goal is for chaplains to bring Christianity to “unreached” children between the ages of 4 and 14, and to lead school assemblies with prayer. The group’s CEO, Rocky Malloy, has testified with a straight face that the association has served more than 27 million people in 30,000 schools and that during this time no students at any of those schools died of suicide. The group is plainly aiming to exploit the school counselor shortage in order to missionize other people’s children, and is willing to make laughable, patently false claims to get into public schools.

With the Texas law in effect, the state’s more than 1,200 school districts have until March 1 to vote on whether to adopt chaplain programs. While many have made the right choice, others have taken up the offer to turn schools into religious recruitment grounds. As chaplains spring into action in the relatively near future, parents and students will have to vigilantly defend the right to an education free from divisive religion by challenging in court the coercive practices of chaplains. The Freedom From Religion Foundation will be there to defend those rights.

Unfortunately, 13 other states have followed Texas’ lead and are considering copycat bills in various forms: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma and Utah. Below is a rundown of these bills.

Let’s start with the most flagrantly unconstitutional. Georgia’s SB 379 is similar to the Texas law but includes no safeguards whatsoever. Plus, it absurdly defines the term “chaplain” as “a clergy member who is trained to serve in a secular environment; provided, however, that such term shall not include any person who is a satanist.” By excluding a disfavored religious minority from any school chaplain program, Georgia lawmakers have simultaneously made the bill facially, undeniably unconstitutional while at the same time highlighting the problem with public school chaplain programs in general: the subjection of students to proselytizing adults during the school day.

Prohibiting chaplains who have a “scary” religion like The Satanic Temple confirms that these lawmakers envision chaplains promoting religion to students who do not already share the chaplain’s religious beliefs. If they thought chaplains would not proselytize nonadherents, there would be no need to worry about disfavored minority religions. But the reality is that they know Christian chaplains will be promoting Christianity — and they want to make sure that’s the only game in town.

Indiana’s chaplain bill, HB 1192, is uniquely bad for two reasons. First, the bill combines public school chaplains with a provision requiring schools to approve all requests for “released time” religious instruction. Effectively, the bill simultaneously tries to push religion onto students both on campus and off campus. Second, the bill allows individual principals and superintendents to hire chaplains, rather than inviting school districts to create chaplain programs. This would permit each principal to bring a chaplain of their own preferred denomination into their school — even if the local school board disapproves of violating students’ rights in this way.

Oklahoma has two unique chaplain bills, SB 1984, which contemplates schools “contracting” with chaplains in lieu of counselors, and HB 3122, which has a chaplain provision similar to many others but coupled with all sorts of Christian nationalist nonsense, ranging from allowing public school to teach intelligent design to allowing schools to “display a memorial cross that is symbolic of the Christian faith.” It would be hard to make it more clear that the chaplain bill is intended to promote Christianity.

Other bills are closer copies of the Texas law, including Alabama’s HB 59, Iowa’s HF 2073, Kansas’ HB 2732, Nebraska’s LB 1065, Mississippi’s HB 1016, and Missouri’s SB 1376, although there are small variations and not all require school boards to vote on the proposal.

Maryland’s HB 1234 is the most minimal, simply stating that chaplains may be included as “volunteer aides.”

Some chaplain bills include additional safeguards, ostensibly to help ensure that students are not coerced into meetings with proselytizing chaplains. For example, Ohio’s HB 240 prohibits chaplains from meeting with students “in lieu of” school counselors, Utah’s HB 514 allows the state Board of Education to require chaplain training, and Florida’s HB 931 would require school districts to post its chaplains, with their denominations, on the district website, and would require parental consent prior to chaplains meeting with students. While these provisions do address some concerns of public school chaplain programs, they do not and cannot correct the most fundamental problems, and can even exacerbate them. A school district listing online its preferred chaplains, with its preferred denominations, sends a clear message to students who do not share those beliefs that they are outsiders or should convert to the favored religion. 

Schools should not be in the business of endorsing particular religious leaders or swapping mental health professionals for unlicensed outside adults. Students are entitled not only to a secular school system, but to be helped by professionals trained to deal as the first point of contact for mental health support or suicide prevention. The possibilities for abuse in such situations are rife, particularly with sensitive topics that chaplains may regard as “sins” or suggest can be prayed away. There are 16 school-free hours in the day plus weekends, in which students and their parents can seek out pastoral counseling of their choice in tax-free churches.

As Ulysses S. Grant said during his presidency, in speaking out against any taxation to promote sectarian schools: “Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private schools, supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and state forever separate.” 

Of all these pending bills, those closest to passage are in Florida, Indiana (passed in the Senate without the released time provision) and Utah, where they have already been passed by their chamber of origin and now must pass the second chamber. Georgia’s horrific bill has been approved by a committee, Kansas’ bill was heard in committee but not yet voted on and the others — Alabama, Iowa, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio and Oklahoma — are either dead or have not had a hearing to date. 

The FFRF Action Fund is opposing these bills all over the country, through testimony, op-eds, and mobilizing our advocates to contact your legislators. Opposition to school chaplain bills has been vocal, ranging from secular voices to chaplains themselves, but all-too-many Christian nationalist lawmakers don’t care. The real solution is for Americans to stop electing people who use their government offices to impose their personal religious beliefs onto other people and their children.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR 

Ryan D. Jayne received a B.A. in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Honors College in 2007. He attended law school at Lewis & Clark in Portland, Ore., where he served as an associate editor for the Animal Law Review at Lewis & Clark and co-founding the Pacific Northwest’s first Secular Legal Society. Ryan graduated cum laude in 2015, began working with FFRF in January of 2015, and became an FFRF staff attorney in September 2017. As Senior Policy Counsel, Ryan spearheads the FFRF Action Fund’s state-based legislative advocacy .

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