July/August 2023 Church & State Magazine - July/August 2023

AU, allies warn Texas public schools not to allow chaplains in classrooms

 

Allowing chaplains in public schools would violate the state and U.S. constitutions, according to a letter sent to Texas school districts and charter schools June 26 by Americans United, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Texas and the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The letter follows the passage of Texas Senate Bill 763, which requires all school boards to vote on whether to adopt a policy to hire, or accept as volunteers, chaplains who will “provide support, services, and programs for students.” 

Although the legislation purports to authorize public-school chaplains, the letter informs districts that permitting chaplains to assume official positions — whether paid or voluntary — in public schools will lead to religious coercion and indoctrination of students in violation of the First Amendment. And because chaplains are generally affiliated with specific religious denominations and traditions, in deciding which chaplains to hire or accept, schools would inherently give unconstitutional preferences to particular faiths. 

The letter explains that courts have repeatedly ruled that it is unconstitutional for public schools to invite religious leaders onto campus to engage in religious activities, such as prayer and religious counseling, with students.

“Religious freedom requires that parents — not school officials or state legislatures — direct their children’s religious education,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United. “Families should be able to trust that their children will not have a particular religious perspective forced on them while attending public schools. Replacing trained school counselors with religious chaplains violates the religious freedom of every student and family in Texas. Americans United is prepared to defend the separation of church and state and ensure Texas public schools are welcoming and inclusive for all students.”

“Allowing chaplains in public schools is unconstitutional,” the groups asserted. “The First Amendment guarantees families and their chosen religious communities — not government-imposed religious leaders — the right to educate their children about matters of faith. 

“Texas’s public schools are religiously diverse, and all students should feel safe and welcome in them. Opening the schoolhouse doors to chaplains would undermine this critical goal.” 

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