Chaplains don’t belong in public schools

  Rob Boston

As Americans United noted in a press release yesterday, the truly awful idea of installing chaplains in public schools is spreading beyond Texas. School-chaplain bills have been introduced in 14 states this year so far.

In Texas, the font of so many bad church-state proposals, legislators justified the move by insisting that not all schools can afford counselors, therefore chaplains are needed.

Chaplains have a religious function

This argument collapses because counselors and chaplains are not interchangeable. Public school counselors are certified educators who are trained to work with all students. They provide secular guidance, mental-health counseling and other forms of assistance to young people of all faith backgrounds and those who are nonreligous. Chaplains, on the other hand, have a wholly religious function. They exist to provide spiritual, faith-based guidance. Their presence in public schools violates the constitutional prohibition on religious coercion. Public school students who need services should not feel pressured to listen to religious advice or agree to participate in religious activities to get the help they need. (Also, if local public schools are so cash-strapped that they can’t afford to hire essential staff, perhaps the legislature could do something like, oh, I don’t know, allocate more funds to the schools?)

Yesterday, open letters were issued from more than 200 chaplains, 38 faith groups and 34 civil rights organizations (including AU) – all spelling out why state legislators should oppose public school chaplain programs. The letter from faith groups, for example, makes the point that chaplains may be permissible in some settings where people are unable to access a faith community – the military, prisons and hospitals come to mind – but public school students face no such barriers. They can, as they choose or as guided by their parents and guardians, attend (or not attend) the house of worship of their choice.

An attack on secular education

This scheme is yet another effort to violate a fundamental principle: that America’s public schools must be secular and welcome all students, no matter their views on religion. It’s an attempt by Christian Nationalists to merge their ultraconservative, fundamentalist version of Christianity with public education. They want to convert our schools into centers of proselytization. We can’t allow that.

The majority of faith leaders and chaplains recognize that their job is to spread religious messages and offer spiritual guidance to those in need. These goals can’t be reconciled with the mission of public education, which is to impart secular education.

These bills deserve to die.

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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