An Unconstitutional and Dangerous State Trend: Chaplains as School Counselors

Civil Rights Policy Brief #223 | By: Rodney A. Maggay | April 10, 2024

Featured Photo: www.expressnews.com

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Policy Summary: In May 2023, the Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 763, which permitted school districts in the state to use unlicensed religious chaplains in lieu of traditional trained and credentialed school counselors. The bill was finally passed after attempts to amend the bill failed. The defeated amendments were a requirement that the chaplains be credentialed to provide support services (similar to requirements when chaplains work in prisons), a requirement that the chaplains be barred from trying to convert a student from one religion to another and a requirement that the student’s parents provide consent for the student to speak with a chaplain. The Texas bill required all of the school districts in Texas to vote whether their district would allow religious chaplains to provide counseling services in their school districts. In an unexpected outcome, twenty – five of the largest school districts in Texas, accounting for more than one – third of the public school students in Texas, rejected the chaplaincy program for their school district.

However, the bill from Texas inspired similar legislation. In thirteen states – Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma and Utah – similar school chaplaincy bills have been introduced. A common feature of these bills is that these religious chaplains would be permitted to handle counseling services even if they do not possess the same qualifications and credentials of traditional school counselors and other school support staff.

In Florida in March 2024, the state legislature passed their version of the school chaplaincy program bill. Governor Ron DeSantis is expected to sign the bill. In response, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) marshalled an effort to push back on the Florida bill in conjunction with other faith groups and community leaders. LEARN MORE, LEARN MORE

Policy Analysis: The state bills inspired by Texas Senate bill 763 are naked unconstitutional attempts to try to force religion, specifically Christianity, on to impressionable public school students.

Many of these state legislators have been emboldened by recent Supreme Court cases that have been more accommodating to religion than in decades, even centuries, past. The perception is that states and legislators can now try to pass more religious based bills that favor, and even promote Christianity, because of the belief that the U.S. Supreme Court will not strike down these laws.

Even with the turn towards more religious accommodation at the Supreme Court, it is still a fundamental principle of the First Amendment that there is a separation of church and state that cannot be invaded by government entities. Rachel Laser, CEO and president of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State responded to these bills by stating, “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.” By allowing unlicensed chaplains into the classroom there is a very real possibility that these chaplains will take advantage of students who need legitimate support services for mental health and social issues. The priority and purpose of these chaplains would be to impose their religious belief on the student or converting the student to the chaplain’s preferred religion. This is a situation that the First Amendment was designed to prevent against – the imposition of religious beliefs sponsored by the government. These bills are likely unconstitutional based on the centuries of tradition and history of the First Amendment’s religious clauses.

State legislators have tried to defend the school chaplaincy bills in their state with the argument that students who are exposed to religion will be better off to handle many of the emerging issues of the day. But this rationale is at best vague. There are no specifics as to how a religious person would best be positioned to help a student facing a mental health crisis, academic issues or bullying situations. A feature of these bills that is receiving much of the criticism is that it allows anyone to be a school chaplain without any requirement of being trained and credentialed as a traditional school counselor. The chaplain would be placed in a position to provide school counseling services. This is a scenario that can escalate very quickly into a dangerous situation.

Simply identifying as a religious person does not give the person the tools or know how to manage an ongoing mental health crisis. Nor does it qualify the religious person to handle the complexities of gender identity issues. Especially when a good number of religious persons are opposed to LGBQT persons. The lack of any training requirements or counseling credentials is going to create an environment where someone who is least qualified to manage a crisis will end up “counseling” students in a manner that is ill – suited to bring about the best outcome. The perception of these bills shows that these legislators are not interested in pursuing the best possible outcome for students struggling with issues in school but are instead trying to impose religious viewpoints on as many students as possible, regardless of what the student wants or desires. Some of the biggest school districts in Texas have already rejected Senate Bill 763 and it is hoped that the similar bills in other states will be rejected as well. LEARN MORE

Engagement Resources

  • Tallahasee Democrat – article illustrating the arguments for and against the Florida school chaplaincy bill, including whether Satanists would be allowed to provide counseling services.
  • American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) – statement from non – profit group explaining the legal and practical flaws in school chaplaincy bills.
  • Austin – American Statesman – article detailing why some religious groups in Texas oppose the school chaplaincy program bill.

This brief was compiled by Rod Maggay. If you have comments or want to add the name of your organization to this brief, please contact rodwood@email.com.

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