April 2024 Church & State Magazine - April 2024

Faith groups and religious leaders oppose chaplains in public schools


In three open letters to state lawmakers issued last month, more than 200 individual chaplains, along with dozens of faith groups and civil rights organizations, spoke out against a wave of proposed state legislation seeking to install chaplains in public schools across the country.

This year alone, bills in at least 14 states have proposed allowing public schools to employ (or accept as volunteers) chaplains to provide student-support services, including counseling and other mental health assistance. These bills follow a similar measure passed in Texas last year.

The open letters highlight the dangers of allowing chaplains, who are typically not trained or certified to provide educational or mental health services to youth or to assume the responsibilities of qualified professional school counselors and other school staff. Students are likely to receive inadequate mental health support that, in some cases, may be affirmatively harmful.

In addition, allowing chaplains in public schools would violate students’ and families’ religious-freedom rights by inevitably leading to religious coercion and evangelizing of students. As explained in the chaplains’ letter, chaplains are trained to provide religious counseling to people in spiritual need. Not only are they unqualified to provide student mental-health services, but chaplains typically lack the necessary experience or training to ensure that they adhere to schools’ educational mandates and avoid veering into proselytizing and other promotion of religion, which is unconstitutional when undertaken by school employees or volunteers.

To date, school-chaplain bills have been introduced in these states in 2024: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma and Utah. The three open letters released on March 6 — one by a group of more than 200 individual chaplains, another signed by 38 faith groups, and the third endorsed by 34 civil rights organizations (including AU) — urge state legislators and legislatures to protect the integrity of public schools, as well as students’ religious freedom and mental well-being, by rejecting proposed chaplaincy programs.

“As trained chaplains, we strongly caution against the government assertion of authority for the spiritual development and formation of our public school children,” states the letter from more than 200 individual chaplains in 40 states. “Families and religious institutions — not public school officials — should direct the religious education of our children.”

“Government-sanctioned chaplains may be permissible in some limited settings — but not in our public schools,” the 38 faith groups wrote. “For example, our government has provided chaplains in the military, prisons, and hospitals — places where chaplains are needed to accommodate the religious-exercise rights of people who would otherwise not be able to access religious services. Public school children face no such barriers.”

“All should feel welcome in public schools,” wrote the 34 civil rights organizations. “Even well-intentioned chaplain policies will undermine this fundamental premise of our public-education system and violate our longstanding First Amendment principles.”

“The constitutional promise of church-state separation requires that students and parents — not public school officials, state legislatures or government-imposed religious leaders — get to make their own decisions about religion,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United. 

“Public schools,” Laser added, “should never force any particular religion on students. In order to protect the religious freedom of all students and families, legislators should ensure that certified school counselors — not chaplains — continue to support our students. In America, there shouldn’t be any doubt that public schools welcome and are inclusive of all students. Public schools are not Sunday schools.”

Participating organizations include the American Civil Liberties Union, American Atheists, BJC (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty), Freedom From Religion Foundation, Interfaith Alliance, and Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Congress needs to hear from you!

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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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