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FFRF Action Fund joins large coalition against public-school chaplain programs 

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In three open letters to state lawmakers, more than 200 individual chaplains, along with dozens of faith groups, the FFRF Action Fund and other secular and civil society organizations, are speaking out against a wave of proposed legislation seeking to install chaplains in public schools nationwide. 

This year alone, bills in at least 14 states have proposed allowing public schools to employ (or accept as volunteers) chaplains to provide student-support services, including counseling and other mental-health assistance. The slew of legislation follows a similar measure passed in Texas last year.

The open letters highlight the dangers of allowing chaplains, who are typically not trained or certified to provide educational or mental-health services, to assume the responsibilities of qualified professional school counselors and other school staff. Students are likely to receive inadequate mental-health support that, in some cases, may be affirmatively harmful. 

In addition, allowing chaplains in public schools would violate students’ and families’ religious-freedom rights by inevitably leading to religious coercion and evangelizing of students. As explained in the chaplains’ letter, chaplains are trained to provide religious counseling to people in spiritual need. Not only are they unqualified to provide student mental-health services, but chaplains typically do not have the necessary experience or training to ensure that they adhere to schools’ educational mandates and avoid veering into proselytizing and other promotion of religion, which is unconstitutional when undertaken by school employees or volunteers.

To date, school-chaplain bills have been introduced in 14 states in 2024, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma and Utah. The three open letters released today — one by a group of more than 200 individual chaplains, another signed by 38 faith groups, and the third endorsed by 34 secular and civil society organizations — urge state legislators to protect the integrity of public schools, as well as the religious freedom and mental well-being of students, by rejecting proposed chaplaincy programs.

“As trained chaplains, we strongly caution against the government assertion of authority for the spiritual development and formation of our public school children,” states the letter from more than 200 individual chaplains in 40 states. “Families and religious institutions — not public school officials — should direct the religious education of our children.” 

“Government-sanctioned chaplains may be permissible in some limited settings — but not in our public schools,” the 38 faith groups write. “For example, our government has provided chaplains in the military, prisons and hospitals — places where chaplains are needed to accommodate the religious-exercise rights of people who would otherwise not be able to access religious services. Public school children face no such barriers.”

“All should feel welcome in public schools,” write the 34 secular and civil society organizations, including FFRF Action Fund. “Even well-intentioned chaplain policies will undermine this fundamental premise of our public education system and violate our longstanding First Amendment principles.” 

“It is anathema that schools would swap bonafide counseling professionals with unlicensed chaplains,” says FFRF Action Fund President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Students deserve qualified help for academic counseling, mental health support or suicide prevention.”

Says Holly Hollman, general counsel and associate executive director of BJC (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty): “Efforts to put religious leaders in official roles in the public schools invade a realm of religious freedom that is properly protected by the separation of the institutions of church and state. Families and the religious decisions they make in raising children are properly shaped by congregations chosen by families and not the government.”

“The constitutional promise of church-state separation requires that students and parents — not public school officials, state legislatures or government-imposed religious leaders — get to make their own decisions about religion,” says Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “Public schools are not Sunday schools.”

“The First Amendment protects the right of all students to attend public schools without the risk of school staff evangelizing them or imposing religion in any other way,” says Heather L. Weaver, Senior Staff Attorney for the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “Allowing chaplains on campus will undermine this fundamental constitutional principle and make our public schools unwelcoming environments for students who may hold different religious beliefs and values than their school’s official clergy.”

FFRF Action Fund (ffrfaction.org) is the legislative arm of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (www.ffrf.org) is a national nonprofit organization with 40,000 members across the country. It protects the constitutional separation between state and church and educates about nontheism.

BJC (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty) is an 88-year-old religiously based organization working to defend faith freedom for all and protect the institutional separation of church and state in the historic Baptist tradition. BJC is the home of the Christians Against Christian Nationalism campaign. 

Americans United is a religious freedom advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, AU educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom. Learn more at www.au.org

For more than 100 years, the ACLU has worked in courts, legislatures, and communities to protect the constitutional rights of all people, including First Amendment rights. With a nationwide network of offices and millions of members and supporters, the ACLU takes on the toughest civil liberties fights in pursuit of liberty and justice for all.