States

School Chaplain Bills Multiply, Stirring Debate on Faith-Based Counseling

Some fear a chink in the wall separating church and state
By Evie Blad — March 15, 2024 6 min read
Image of a bible sitting on top of a school backpack.
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A surge of state proposals would allow school districts to use religiously affiliated chaplains to counsel students during the school day.

Texas became the first state to pass such a bill last year. Fourteen states have followed course since, weighing legislation with similar language. They include Florida, where legislators passed a bill March 7 that will soon head to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk.

The bills come as educators struggle to address a youth mental health crisis. They also come as states weigh actions—like the approval of a religious charter school in Oklahoma and bills pending in several states that would require the display of the Ten Commandments in public schools—that test the boundaries of the First Amendment, alarming advocates for a firm separation of church and state.

Proponents say chaplains—generally understood as religious officials who work in nonreligious settings—would give schools more resources to support students amid nationwide concerns about youth mental health and a shortage of counselors and social workers. Opponents, including interfaith and religious liberty groups, say the bills would lead to unfair isolation of students from minority faiths and provide a conduit for adults with inadequate training to proselytize in public schools.

“We see chaplains in many of our public sector entities. If the federal government allows chaplain services in the military, shouldn’t we allow our children to have access to these services as well?” Ryan Kennedy, the manager of policy and advocacy for the Florida Citizens Alliance, told lawmakers in a Jan. 25 committee hearing. The conservative organization also supports private school choice, banning social-emotional learning, and restricting “objectionable” school materials related to race and sexuality.

Many of the bills under consideration in state legislatures don’t define what a chaplain is and have no requirements other than a standard background check. That has raised concern among opponents—among them more than 200 chaplains from a variety of faith backgrounds and work settings, including prisons, hospitals, and military bases who signed a March 6 letter to lawmakers in states with pending bills.

Credentialed chaplains have graduate degrees and specific training to work with adults in various faith traditions who may have limited access to their religious communities because they are incarcerated, ill, or deployed, they wrote. And their training does not include many facets of school counselors’ work.

“As trained chaplains, we are not qualified to address the needs of public school students that these proposals purport to address,” the letter said. “We cooperate with mental health counselors—we do not compete with them.”

Mixed reactions to Texas school chaplain bill

Texas Senate Bill 763, signed into law by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in June 2023, gave the boards of school districts and charter schools in the state until March 1 to take a recorded vote on whether they would adopt a school chaplain policy.

The law allows schools to pay chaplains with their share of state funding for school safety and child well-being, or to allow them to work in schools on a volunteer basis. The law gives districts discretion in selecting chaplains and determining their involvement in school programs. During debate on the measure, lawmakers voted down a proposed amendent by Democratic lawmakers that would have prohibited school chaplains from proselytizing. They also rejected language, since included in some other states’ chaplain bills, that would have required parental approval for students to seek counseling from chaplains.

By the end of February, each of the state’s largest 25 districts voted to oppose the chaplain option, according to a tracker maintained by the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, which opposes school chaplain bills.

But some smaller districts have approved chaplain policies. They include the 1,600-student Mineola district in east Texas, where the school board voted in September to allow volunteer chaplains.

“I can’t think of a better qualified person if they’re dealing with a crisis and if the parents are good with it and it comes from a similar faith that they have,” Superintendent Cody Mize told local news station CBS19. “To be able to work with someone like-minded in their faith, I think that’s a huge benefit for our kids.”

While the bills don’t specify that chaplains must come from specific faith backgrounds, their most outspoken supporters include leaders of the National School Chaplain Association, a subsidiary of Mission Generation, a ministry that “seeks to provide students, teachers, and parents with the tools they need to make quality life decisions based upon the Word of God and the leading of the Holy Spirit,” according to its mission statement.

Chaplains opposed to the bills say it’s not the role of public schools to foster students’ religious and spiritual growth. And they fear that students from religious minorities or nonreligious families will feel social pressure or coercion if they do not consult with the selected faith leaders.

Even if leaders make a good faith effort, it’s unlikely districts would be able to recruit volunteers to match the diversity of their students’ spiritual backgrounds, said Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, a former campus chaplain at Princeton University and the president and CEO of the Interfaith Alliance, an organization that advocates for inclusion and religious freedom.

“I think people [who support these bills] in their minds assume the chaplain is going to be like them,” he said. “But if you’re Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or atheist, you don’t go into this assuming that. These are public schools. They’re one of our great remaining institutions where people can come together from diverse backgrounds and we try as best we can to convey an equal dignity in that space. This disrupts that.”

A shortage of student mental health professionals

Sponsors of the state bills insist they are not seeking to sanction a particular faith.

“It’s not a promotion of a religion,” Oklahoma Rep. Danny Williams, a Republican who sponsored a school chaplain bill, told local news station Fox25 March 6. “It’s a promotion of good, quality life.”

District leaders and national organizations representing school counselors, social workers, and psychiatrists have expressed concerns that schools lack adequate personnel to address students’ mental health needs. They’ve linked such shortages to a lack of funding for new positions and a lack of candidates for open ones.

The counselor-to-student ratio nationally stood at 385 students to one counselor in 2022–23, compared with 408 students to one counselor the previous school year, the American School Counselor Association found in a February analysis of federal data. Despite some improvement, the national average is still higher than the organization’s recommendation of 250 students per counselor.

The September deadline for spending federal COVID-19 relief aid also may force districts to cut some student support positions.

But groups like the Baptist Joint Committee say it’s wrong to equate chaplains with mental health professionals trained to work with children. Schools are obligated to respect students’ individual rights to religious expression, and they must not give the impression that they are supporting or advancing a particular faith, said Holly Hollman, the organization’s general counsel.

“The basic premise is that the government and particularly the public schools are not charged with religious formation. That’s as clear as I can put it,” she said. “If the point is to provide services for students, we need to find those services appropriately.”

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