Putting chaplains in public school is the latest battle in culture wars

Lawmakers in mostly conservative states are pushing a coordinated effort to bring chaplains into public schools, aided by a new, legislation-crafting network that aims to address policy issues “from a biblical world view” and by a consortium whose promotional materials say chaplains are a way to convert millions to Christianity.

The bills have been introduced this legislative season in 14 states, inspired by Texas, which passed a law last year allowing school districts to hire chaplains or use them as volunteers for whatever role the local school board sees fit, including replacing trained counselors. Chaplain bills were approved by one legislative chamber in three states — Utah, Indiana and Louisiana — but died in Utah and Indiana. Bills are pending in nine states. One passed both houses of Florida’s legislature and is awaiting the governor’s signature.

The bills are mushrooming 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.” Former president Donald Trump has edged close to a government-sanctioned religion by asserting in his campaign that immigrants who “don’t like our religion — which a lot of them don’t” would be barred from the country in a second term.

“We are reclaiming religious freedom in this country,” said Jason Rapert, a former Arkansas state senator and the president of the National Association of Christian Lawmakers, which he founded in 2019 to craft model legislation, according to the group’s site. Its mission is “to bring federal, state and local lawmakers together in support of clear biblical principles … to address major policy concerns from a biblical world view,” the site says.

The group hosted House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) late last year at its gala at the Museum of the Bible in Washington. The chaplain bills, Rapert said, are part of an effort to empower “the values and principles of the founding fathers.” Critics who compare such efforts with theocracy, he said, are creating “a false flag, a boogeyman by radical left to demonize everyone of faith.”

Rapert says he’ll push in the next round of chaplain bills to make the positions mandatory.

Heather Weaver, senior staff attorney at the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, called allowing chaplains into public schools “a constitutional time bomb.”

“It definitely would be a much more direct route to promoting religion to students and evangelizing them than we’ve seen in the past.” she said.

Despite its popularity among some legislators, the campaign has drawn objections in some places where efforts to incorporate religion — Christianity in particular — into public life are normally welcomed. Texas’ law required all school districts to vote by March 1 on whether to accept chaplains, and the state’s biggest districts, in both red and blue areas, rejected the creation of a new chaplain position. Those districts enroll more than half of the state’s public school students.

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 and oppose the government ever declaring an official U.S. religion. Yet, in a 2022 Pew Research poll, a strong minority, 45 percent, said the country “should be a Christian nation.”

“This shows there’s a difference between having some of these loose ideas or inclinations about what the relationship should be between religion and government — especially Christianity and the government — and looking at what it looks like in a policy that impacts our kids,” said Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, a group defending the separation of church and state. “Most people are in the middle.”

Some opponents also said the bills lack specifics and at times alarmed even the religious because parents value trained, educated counselors for mental health and college preparation.

The Texas chaplain bill came amid a cluster of legislative efforts there to weave religion explicitly into public schools. In 2021, the legislature passed a law ordering schools to hang “in a conspicuous place” any donated signs reading “In God We Trust.” In 2023 the state Senate passed bills requiring the Ten Commandments be hung in every classroom in the state, although the effort was shelved in the House.

Democratic lawmakers filed amendments to the chaplain bill but the GOP majority rejected almost all of them, including one requiring parental consent to talk with a chaplain, one barring proselytizing and another requiring chaplains to serve students of all faiths. The bill as passed had no educational or accreditation requirements for chaplains, nor specifics about what they would do.

Supporters of the chaplains offered a mix of pragmatic and religious arguments.

Texas ranks 17th in the nation in the ratio of counselors to students with 1 for every 389 children. (The American School Counselor Association recommends 1 for every 250 students.) Advocates said chaplains could help with kids’ mental health challenges and would infuse a sense of reverence, morality and respect into the schools.

Texas state Sen. Mayes Middleton, one of the bill’s Republican sponsors, said Trump’s U.S. Supreme Court appointments were making “it possible for us to go win some of these fights and put God back in government so people can freely exercise their religious beliefs in government and in schools.”

Lawmakers in Texas and in other states advocating for chaplains said they have worked with the Oklahoma-based National School Chaplain Association, whose annual report says it has served 27 million students in two dozen countries. The association’s site focuses on the need to supplement the shortage of guidance counselors. Not publicized is that the association is a subsidiary of a group called Mission Generation, which has said its goal is to use public school chaplains to convert millions to Christianity.

“The key is schools, the largest network of children on the planet. There is a fantastic opportunity to bring God’s word to millions of children through public and private schools,” says a voice-over on a Mission Generation publicity video.

Officials with the chaplain association initially agreed to answer questions from The Washington Post, but then declined to comment.

Many Texas districts saw local clergy and chaplains of various faiths testify against the new positions, saying students need professional counselors, and that they were concerned about the lack of mandate for religious diversity. The leader of the legislative opposition was state Rep. James Talarico (D), a Presbyterian seminarian. He said that without sufficient guardrails, chaplains would wind up a vehicle for Christian power, which he sees as countering the gospel.

“It is the worship of power,” Talarico said this month during a news conference about the chaplain law. “Jesus never asked us to establish a Christian theocracy. All he asked was that we love thy neighbor.”

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.

Advocates of school chaplains often cite a 2022 Supreme Court ruling involving a public school football coach in Washington state who had been suspended by the school district for praying on the field after games. The court said Joe Kennedy shouldn’t have been suspended for what Gorsuch called a “brief, quiet, personal prayer,” although opponents noted the prayers often drew the media and players, among others. The ruling did not, however, endorse staff-led prayer in public schools.

Some states that are proposing chaplains in schools have taken earlier steps to merge religion and public education. Seven states since 2018 have passed mandates similar to Texas’s offering a dominant display of “In God We Trust” signs. Governors in Idaho and Kentucky recently signed measures that could allow on-duty teachers and public school employees to pray in front of and with students. Advocates for church-state separation say the number of bills seeking to fund and empower conservative religious beliefs has increased, to 1,200 now.

Counselors and those representing them, meantime, say that even as legislators try to push chaplains into schools, they are not sufficiently funding the hiring of trained, secular counselors.

“We underfund and then look for Band-Aids,” said Jill Adams, president of the Texas School Counselor Association. “We look for fixes. I feel the chaplain bill is a Band-Aid.”

The Texas chaplain law did not require districts to report whether they had accepted or rejected their role, so there is no official accounting of what districts and which students may be affected.

Texas Impact, an advocacy arm of Muslim, Jewish and mainline Christian groups, listed 104 large districts that rejected the creation of a chaplain position. Those 104 districts serve 2.7 million students, director Josh Houston said.

The Texas Association of School Boards said it wasn’t tracking votes, but anecdotally found most districts leaning toward affirming that chaplains were welcome as volunteers just as any other citizen would be, a spokesperson for the group wrote in a statement to The Post.

The ACLU said three districts approved accepting chaplains as guidance counselors, and five districts approved accepting chaplains as support staff.

The debate reached Conroe, outside Houston, one snowy night in January. School board president Skeeter Hubert led the room in an opening prayer for the safety of people traveling around the district, and for everyone to make good decisions.

“We ask for these things in the name of our savior, Jesus Christ,” he said.

“Amen,” the room answered.

Hubert had initially been “100 percent open” to the idea of chaplains, he told The Post.

“There are a lot of fiery darts being thrown at our youth. Single family homes, inappropriateness in media, bullying, cliques — all kinds of things,” he said. “I believe our youth will be able to get through this by following the Gospel.”

But as a “policy and procedure guy,” Hubert’s key questions were: How do we make this work? What exactly would chaplains do? Would it require taking funding from the school budget?

Pushing for a no vote was Datren Williams, a board member for 12 years. Williams’s identity, he told The Post, has been shaped both by experiencing being in the majority, as a Southern Baptist growing up in Tennessee, and being in the minority, as a Black man. The push for chaplains who would most likely be Christian was an affront to his faith, which he said calls for the strong to support the weaker.

“When you get an LGBT chaplain showing up in school, you all will be up here in outrage!” he said in the hearing.

Stacey Chase, another board member, said she found unlicensed chaplains in schools “terrifying” and felt if more counselors were needed, more should be hired.

“They aren’t counselors,” school board member Tiffany Nelson said of chaplains. “And if it saves one life it’s worth it.” Nelson cited the Coach Kennedy case, saying incorrectly that it had approved prayer in school.

The meeting went on for two hours and 41 minutes, with board members interrupting and insulting one another and raising their voices to the point that the board vice president had to bang a gavel to stop the arguing. Three citizens, including a pastor, spoke against school chaplains. One woman rose simply to say she opposed letting students pick pronouns, and to read a bit of scripture.

Then the board voted, and the measure to adopt chaplains failed, 4-3.

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