June 2024 Church & State Magazine - June 2024

Fla. approves school chaplains, says some religious groups aren’t included


FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA - OCTOBER 07: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announces that he wants to raise the minimum starting salary for teachers during a press conference held at Bayview Elementary School on October 07, 2019 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  The Governor’s proposed 2020 budget recommendation will include a pay raise for more than 101,000 teachers in Florida by raising the minimum salary to $47,500.

DeSantis: Only certain religions may provide school chaplains (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed a bill allowing chaplains to serve as counselors in the state’s public schools, and he’s insisting that some religious groups can’t participate.

DeSantis wants to fend off an overture by the Satanic Temple, a nontheistic religious group that defends separation of church and state. Temple members have demanded access to public spaces and programs that are open to Christian groups, so it’s only natural that its members would want to take part in the Florida school chaplaincy program; in fact, they’ve already said they intend to.

DeSantis obviously has a problem with that.

“Some have said that if you do a school chaplain program that, somehow, you’re going to have satanists running around in all our schools,” he said during a bill-signing ceremony. “We’re not playing those games in Florida. That is not a religion. That is not qualified to be able to participate in this. So, we’re going to be using common sense when it comes to this. You don’t have to worry about it.”

The problem with that, Americans United pointed out, is that any public school that chooses to participate in this program won’t be able to discriminate. DeSantis may not consider satanism a religion, but the fact is, the Satanic Temple has been recognized as a religious group by the Internal Revenue Service. That means the group has certain legal rights, no matter what DeSantis believes. (Temple members don’t believe in a literal Satan. The group is nontheistic, and its supporters view Satan as a metaphor for rebellion against heavy-handed religious authority.)

The Satanic Temple has won the right to display its symbols, often a statue of the pagan deity Baphomet, in public spaces when other religious groups have access to the space. It has launched after-school clubs in districts where Good News Clubs exist. The Temple is able to do these things because, under the First Amendment, the government must treat all religious groups equally. If benefits are extended to one group, they must be extended to all.

“Public school officials in Florida should think twice before taking legal advice from DeSantis,” AU noted on its “Wall of Separation” blog. “He’s not the one who will be sued if a local school violates the law by discriminating against the Satanic Temple or any other religious group.

“There is one surefire way public school officials in the Sunshine State can avoid running into problems with this ill-considered new law: ignore it. Because the possibility of satanist chaplains isn’t the problem; having chaplains of any faith working in public schools is. Installing religious chaplains in public schools would amount to state-sponsored religion and inevitably lead to religious proselytization and coercion of students — clear violations of students’ and families’ religious freedom rights.”

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