June 16, 2024

Jan Resseger: Broad Coalition of Religious and Civil Rights Organizations Condemns Use of Chaplains as Public School Counselors

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One new method slipping Christianity into schools is to pass laws allowing “chaplains” into public schools. But a broad coalition has spoken up against the idea–including religious authorities. Jan Resseger looks at the pushback. Reposteed with permission

Public schools are short of money, and in too many schools the guidance counselors and school social workers have enormous caseloads that restrict their capacity to know and support all of the students assigned to them. What if state legislatures take steps to remedy that situation by allowing chaplains, whether as school staff or volunteers, to provide relief by taking over some of that load?

Legislators in Texas and Florida have voted to do just that, and Governors Greg Abbott and Ron DeSantis have signed those bills into law. The American Civil Liberties Union senior staff attorney for its Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, Heather Weaver, reports: “A 2023 Texas law allowing public schools to hire chaplains, or accept them as volunteers, to provide student support services has inspired more states to consider copycat legislation. In March, 2024, the Florida Legislature passed a school chaplain bill… Similar bills have been introduced in 13 other states: Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Utah.” So far, none of the bills in these states has passed; some have been defeated or died at the end of the legislative session.

In a report for the Associated PressHannah Fingerhut warns about the motivation of the people who are lobbying for these bills. This kind of legislation is not a mere attempt to help out underfunded schools with well-meaning volunteer support. Instead advocates developed the idea of a Trojan horse to bring Christian evangelizers into schools: “Texas became the first state to allow school chaplains under a law passed in 2023. The National School Chaplain Association, which identifies itself as a Christian chaplain ministry, says on its website it was ‘instrumental’ in spearheading the Texas law. The organization is a subsidiary of Mission Generation, which was established in 1999 to bring Jesus to classrooms worldwide. In a December 2023 newsletter, NSCA celebrated Texas for starting a ‘national movement placing God back in public education.”

For the Washington PostMichelle Boorstein describes the shifting Constitutional ground in recent years that has allowed the emergence of an effort to insert explicitly religious chaplains as counselors into public schools: ‘The bills are mushroomng in an era when the U.S. Supreme Court has expanded the rights of religious people and groups in the public square and weakened historic protections meant to keep the government from endorsing religion. In a 2022 case, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch referred to the ‘so-called separation of church and state.’ … Some experts on church-state relations say the pushback may reflect Americans’ complex and inconsistent relationship with the role Christianity should play in a pluralistic country. Polls show a majority of Americans say that the government should enforce church-state separation…. Yet, in a 2022 Pew Research poll, a strong minority, 45 percent, say the country ‘should be a Christian nation.’… Recent Supreme Court rulings have strengthened the role of publicly funded schools as the vanguard for breaching the traditional divide between church and state. The court has ruled that state-run voucher programs must fund religious schools and that public grant programs can’t exclude religious institutions.”

Strong and diverse opposition has emerged, however, to this particular effort to undermine the religious freedom guaranteed in the Constitution’s First Amendment. In early March, the American Civil Liberties Union released three letters—from 200 individual chaplains, 38 faith groups, and 34 civil rights organizations—condemning the idea of allowing religious chaplains to serve as school counselors.

In their letter, the faith organizations, including Jewish, Christian, and Islamic institutions, declared: “Although we appreciate the desire to provide our students with additional resources, the proposals to place chaplains in our public schools… threaten the well-being, education, and religious freedom of our students…  School counselors… must complete professional training and certification ensuring that they can implement school counseling and their programs to deliver services that support students’ academic, career, social, and emotional development… Chaplains, by contrast, are trained as religious leaders to provide religious services and spiritual care… Furthermore, installing chaplains in our public schools would violate students’ and families’ religious freedom.”

The coalition of 34 civil rights organizations wrote: “(W)e are deeply opposed to any bill that would install chaplains in our public schools. Our society and constitutional commitment to religious freedom guarantees all students the right to attend public school and to access the full range of school services without having government-sponsored religion imposed on them… (B)ecause chaplains are generally affiliated with specific religious denominations and traditions, in deciding which chaplains to hire or accept as volunteers, schools will inherently give preference to particular denominations….”  The letter represents a wide variety of national organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, First Focus on Children, the Interfaith Alliance, the Japanese American Citizens League,  the National Council of Jewish Women, the National Education Association, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), and the Union of Reform Judaism.

In her statement posted on ACLU’s website, Heather Weaver adds: “Authorizing untrained and uncertified chaplains to engage in the same duties as school counselors will result in inadequate mental health support for students. In some cases, chaplains may provide inappropriate responses or interventions that could gravely harm students, including those with mental health crises, LGBTQ students, and other vulnerable individuals.”

In its press release, the ACLU quotes the Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, president and CEO of Interfaith Alliance: “Putting chaplains in public schools erodes the separation of religion and government and opens our students up to potential religious coercion. That’s why this broad and diverse coalition is standing together to challenge these dangerous bills whenever they are introduced across the country.”

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