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Florida joins Texas in adopting school ‘chaplain’ option, denounced by chaplains – Baptist News Global

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his supporters celebrated his recent signing of a new law allowing untrained, unlicensed chaplains to volunteer in public schools.

“At a time when much of the country is facing a mental health crisis, having volunteer primary and secondary school chaplains is a logical solution. We are failing our children when we focus only on meeting their intellectual needs but fail to make provision for their spiritual and emotional needs,” said State Rep. Stan McClain, the Republican who sponsored the school chaplaincy bill that DeSantis signed on April 18.

But religious and civil rights groups warned that the program threatens religious freedom and the spiritual and mental well-being of students and their families.

Paul Raushenbush

“As a pastor, I know those chaplains can play an appropriate and important role in the lives of many families, but their place is absolutely not in our public schools,” said Paul Raushenbush, president of the Interfaith Alliance. “The legislation Governor DeSantis just signed exposes students to potential religious coercion and creates a serious risk that those who need support from trained counselors will not receive it.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida denounced the program, which goes into effect July 1, as a threat to the constitutional rights of public school students.

“Allowing public schools to establish paid or voluntary positions for chaplains will inevitably lead to evangelism and religious coercion of students.”

“Allowing public schools to establish paid or voluntary positions for chaplains will inevitably lead to evangelism and religious coercion of students. This violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which, together with the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, guarantees the constitutional right to religious freedom,” the ACLU statement said. “Courts have repeatedly ruled that it is unconstitutional for public schools to invite religious leaders to participate in religious activities with students or to promote religious doctrines to them.”

Allowing volunteers to serve without the required training and certifications of professional school counselors points to the true purpose of the legislation, the ACLU said. “Exempting chaplains from the same professional requirements as other school personnel makes it clear that installing them in public schools is not about helping students, but is yet another attempt to subject children to unconstitutional, government-sponsored religious indoctrination.”

With the enactment of House Bill 931, Florida becomes the second state to codify a school chaplaincy program, with Texas taking the lead in September 2023. Similar legislation has been introduced in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland and Mississippi. , Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma and Utah.

The concurrent effort to bring volunteer chaplains to the nation’s public schools appears to have been inspired by the National School Chaplain Association, an Oklahoma-based organization dedicated to evangelizing schoolchildren in every state in the country.

“The association believes in spiritual care has been absent from the school system for a long time. As a result, students are often left alone to navigate complex emotions without support from trusted adults or authority figures,” the website says.

So far, the idea of ​​a school chaplaincy has not been well received nor successful.

In Texas, professional chaplains and other faith leaders circulated letters and petitions urging lawmakers to vote against the measure to protect students from conversion and from receiving unqualified emotional and educational counseling.

When the bill became law, the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Freedom led a grassroots campaign to prevent Texas school boards from enrolling in the program before the March 1 deadline. BJC and allies like Texas Impact and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism ultimately helped convince numerous districts, including the 25 largest, to reject the program.

Comparable campaigns are being fed by a coalition of professional chaplains and religious leaders in a dozen other states. Last month, 34 civil rights groups, 38 faith-based organizations and 265 professional chaplains sent letters protesting school chaplain bills in a dozen states.

“Families and religious institutions – not public school officials – should direct the religious education of our children. Introducing religious leaders into official school positions to serve students in schools will cause division among student organizations made up of many faiths and non-religious students,” the chaplains said in their letter to lawmakers.

In an effort to deflect criticism, DeSantis and his supporters have emphasized that use of the chaplaincy program is up to each district and school board and that written permission from a parent or guardian will be required before a student can receive guidance from a school chaplain.

Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons

“Faith leaders and social organizations are important additional resources for students who may be facing challenges or need to build community and camaraderie,” said DeSantis. “I am excited to expand the variety of options available to students at school, and we have no doubt that these options will enhance our students’ experiences.”

On the same day he passed the chaplaincy bill, DeSantis signed House Bill 1317, which allows school districts to allow civic and patriotic organizations to visit schools. These include Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Future Farmers of America and the Marine Corps League.

However, religious freedom advocates urged Florida school districts to avoid the church-state entanglement created by the chaplaincy program.

“Florida School Chaplain Law ignores the religious liberty concerns raised by faith-based groups, civil rights groups and trained chaplains,” said Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, BJC communications director. “Any state considering school chaplain programs should listen to the more than 265 chaplains who warn the nation that ‘we strongly caution against the government’s assertion of authority for the spiritual development and formation of our public school children. Families and religious institutions – not public school officials – should direct the religious education of our children.’”

Districts across the state can expect a coordinated effort to reject the chaplaincy program, Raushenbush added. “A broad coalition of people of different faiths and beliefs are standing together to challenge dangerous legislation like this in Florida and across the country.”

Related articles:

All 25 largest school districts in Texas are rejecting the option of school chaplains

Alabama lawmakers are trying to duplicate Texas’ law on school chaplains, even as opposition grows in Texas

100 Chaplains Urge Texas Schools Not to Take the Bait on School Chaplains

Texas is the first step in a national plan to install “chaplains” in public schools instead of professional counselors

Four groups are warning Texas schools about a new chaplaincy program