AP U.S.

Some state lawmakers want school chaplains as part of a ‘rescue mission’ for public education

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Lawmakers in more than a dozen states have proposed legislation to allow spiritual chaplains in public schools, a move that proponents say will ease a youth mental health crisis, bolster staff retention and offer spiritual care to students who can’t afford or access religious schools.

Conservatives also argue religious foundations will act as a “rescue mission” for what they say are public schools’ declining values, a topic that has galvanized Republican-controlled Legislatures to fight for issues such as parental oversight of curriculum, restrictions on books and instruction on gender identity and state-funded tuition assistance for private and religious schools.

But many chaplains and interfaith organizations oppose the chaplaincy campaign, calling the motivation offensive and describing the dangers of introducing a position of authority to children without clear standards or boundaries.

“They are going to be engaging students, sometimes when they’re at their most vulnerable, and there’s not going to be any checks on whether they’re able to proselytize, what they’re able to say to kids grappling with really difficult issues,” said Maureen O’Leary, organizing director at Interfaith Alliance.

The organization has shared concerns with lawmakers and school boards, saying schools should be “neutral spaces where students can come as their full selves,” O’Leary said.

“This isn’t a matter of being pro- religion and anti-religion,” she said. “This is a matter of the appropriate role of religion as it applies to public schools.”

Texas kicks off a national campaign

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.”

NSCA chaplains “deliver holistic care, guidance, and safety to all people, all the time regardless of their personal beliefs, or non-beliefs” and the organization’s statement of faith is typical of endorsing bodies, an association representative said in an email.

After the bill passed, dozens of Texas chaplains representing different faiths and denominations collectively wrote to school boards, warning the law doesn’t require that “chaplains refrain from proselytizing while at schools or that they serve students from different religious backgrounds.”

The law ordered more than 1,200 school districts to decide by March 1 whether they would allow chaplains as employees or volunteers. Many of the largest opted out.

Houston and Austin said volunteers’ roles and responsibilities were unchanged so a volunteer wouldn’t be providing chaplain services. Dallas’ school board said chaplains should not be employees or volunteers at this time.

In the meantime, varying school chaplain bills have been introduced in many Southern and Midwestern states, with mixed success.

A school chaplain bill passed both chambers of the Florida Legislature and awaits Gov. Ron DeSantis’s signature. School policy must describe the services of a volunteer chaplain and require parental consent.

Indiana’s proposal, which passed one chamber but failed in the other, specified chaplains would provide secular services unless student and parents consent to nonsecular services. Some lawmakers questioned where that line would be drawn and how a student would know.

In Utah, Rep. Keven Stratton told his colleagues recent Supreme Court decisions on religious freedom provide an opportunity for school chaplains and a return to the tradition of acknowledging God in public institutions.

John Johnson, his counterpart in the Utah Senate, where the proposal ultimately failed without full GOP support, said he observed an “outright disdain for religious principles within our schools” during committee meetings. He said that would have consequences such as more families choosing alternatives to public school.

“It would be helpful and much easier if my colleagues would take our efforts here not as an attack but as a rescue mission,” he said on the Senate floor.

Increasingly, proposals from then- President Donald Trump to stategoverningbodies have intended to crack the firewall between church and public schools, an effort that civil liberties groups say undermines equal treatment of all faiths and threatens religious minorities.

Public schools have been barred from leading students in classroom prayer since 1962, when the Supreme Court ruled it was a violation of the First Amendment clause forbidding the establishment of a government religion.

The Supreme Court case brought by a coach fired for praying on the field addressed the balance between the religious and free speech rights of teachers and staff and the rights of students not to feel coerced into religious practices. The decision to back a praying football coach aligned with a series of rulings in favor of religious plaintiffs.

Concept of chaplains is ‘very gray’

Chaplains, traditionally a clergyperson ministering outside of a congregation, have long served in the U.S. But the modern role is “very gray,” said Wendy Cadge, director of the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, in that it’s not uniform or universally understood.

Chaplains serve in the U.S. Congress, military, and correctional facilities, and each has rigorous requirements for hiring and service. Hospitals, police and fire departments, colleges and private companies also hire chaplains with wide-ranging standards.

Many chaplains have seminary or ministry training in and the endorsement of a particular faith. But chaplains serving in multicultural places also may be required to bring professional, supervised training called clinical pastoral education.

Story at a glance


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Major hospitals are especially likely to employ chaplains with, and offer training in, clinical pastoral education.

Patients and their families are regularly experiencing existential crises and are vulnerable, said Eric Johnson, director of spiritual care at UnityPoint Health’s Des Moines-area hospitals.

The training helps chaplains learn how to serve untethered to their faith so “transference or reactivity doesn’t get in the way of really attending to people’s needs,” Johnson said.

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