Florida weighs adding chaplains in schools as other Republican-led states push back.

Starting July 1, Florida school districts have the option to approve volunteer chaplains to offer support and services for students in public schools, regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof and with no specific training required, in contrast to similar proposals being turned down by GOP-dominated legislatures nationwide.

Last year, Texas paved the way with a pioneering law permitting schools to fund religious figures serving in mental health capacities, inspiring lawmakers in 15 states to introduce parallel bills.

Among these states, only Florida saw the bill pass through the legislature, signed by Governor Ron DeSantis as HB 931, while Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Ohio still have potential to enact comparable measures this year.

The legislation surrounding the introduction of chaplains into public schools has seen differing approaches among states concerning the qualifications set for chaplains and their role.

Despite various proposals from lawmakers, states such as Alabama, Nebraska, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Mississippi, Utah, Missouri, and Pennsylvania have seen their chaplain bills fall short this year, based on an analysis by Florida Phoenix.

Even though the Florida Legislature is Republican-controlled, some Democrats supported this initiative. From July 1 onward, public school districts can choose to implement a volunteer chaplain program, with parental consent required for student participation. Notably, the legislation does not mandate specific educational qualifications for chaplains; those criteria are at the discretion of the individual school districts.

Jackie Llanos/Florida Phoenix

Early Controversy Arises

Immediately after Governor DeSantis signed HB 931 in April, controversy arose between the governor and the Satanic Temple, as DeSantis declared that individuals associated with the Satanic Temple would not be eligible to serve as chaplains. This statement came in response to the Satanic Temple expressing interest in enrolling members as volunteer chaplains.

The Florida legislation does not specify any religious affiliation for chaplains, allowing both individuals without religious ties and those from varied faith backgrounds to serve. However, the bill requires schools to publicly disclose the list of volunteer chaplains, including any religious affiliations, on the school district’s website.

The impact of HB 931 in Florida’s public schools remains uncertain, as school districts are not mandated to conduct public votes on the matter, contrasting with Texas, where such a requirement was in place.

Despite only one charter school in Texas employing chaplains as of April, according to The Texas Tribune, Holly Hollman from the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty expressed concerns regarding the broader implications of such chaplain programs on school districts.

“As more chaplains voice their opinions, school districts will realize that these proposals pose complex challenges rather than simple student support measures,” Hollman highlighted in a discussion with Florida Phoenix. “School districts need to evaluate their needs and student support strategies, and upon closer examination, they might discern that this venture deviates significantly from the public school mission.”

Utah Rejects Satanic Temple Influence

The prospect of members from the Satanic Temple serving as chaplains in public schools prompted Utah Republicans to reject the proposal this year. During the final day of the GOP-controlled Utah legislative session, the state’s chaplain bill was defeated in a narrow 16-12 vote.

While debating on the Senate floor, several GOP lawmakers who opposed the bill argued that it could enable a wide range of individuals to take on chaplain roles. Republican Lincoln Fillmore from Salt Lake County expressed concerns that approving the bill would lead to regrettable outcomes based on the unrestricted nature of who could serve as chaplains.

“Introducing chaplains into the current school environment might exacerbate issues rather than improve them, as we wouldn’t have the discretion to discriminate, allowing any religious group to appoint chaplains,” Fillmore remarked in an interview with Phoenix. “Similar to the situation in Florida, this includes the church of satan, which expressed interest in placing chaplains. We had chaplain advocates including the satanic church voicing support for the bill.”

Fillmore’s advice to Florida as they implement the law: Proceed cautiously.

“There’s a genuine concern on the conservative side, backed by experience and case examples illustrating that schools are venturing beyond traditional subjects like math, science, and history to influence and shape other aspects. Schools should be very mindful of the practices chaplains are engaged in within school premises,” he emphasized.

Indiana’s Stance on Chaplains as Counselors

While Texas’ legislation explicitly outlined chaplains to fulfill mental health roles, proposals in other states, including Florida, maintained a more indirect approach. In hearings and discussions on the bill, Republican Sen. Erin Grall, a bill sponsor, presented a volunteer chaplain program as a potential substitution for school counselors in some households.

On the other hand, in Indiana, Republican Sen. Stacey Donato introduced an initiative focusing on chaplains serving as counselors, requiring them to hold a master’s degree in a religiously-related field and possess two years of counseling experience. Despite both chambers in the Indiana General Assembly being under GOP control, Donato’s proposal did not advance this year, as provisions allowing chaplains to act as counselors were eliminated from another bill intended to mandate schools to accommodate parents’ requests for students to attend religious instruction.

Alabama Democrats Advocate Chaplain Support

Although the majority of Democratic legislators nationwide opposed school chaplain bills, citing concerns about religious intrusion in public schools and unlicensed personnel addressing students’ mental health needs, Rodger Smitherman, a Democrat from Birmingham, Alabama, pressed ahead with his plan to introduce chaplains to public schools, stressing that it was not meant to supplant counselors. While the Senate did not offer resistance to the initial legislation, Smitherman agreed to a House amendment on May 1 that significantly modified his bill, eliminating the need for school boards to vote on implementing the program and restricting chaplain roles to supporting teachers at their request.

The altered proposal requires chaplains to undergo background checks and complete recognized chaplain training programs to serve as volunteers supporting teachers. Democratic Rep. TaShina Morris underlined the importance of this initiative for ensuring teachers’ well-being and granting them access to necessary support.

Despite scheduled discussions, the bill was not brought to a vote by the time Sine Die concluded on Thursday night.

Oklahoma’s Updated Legislation

Following the non-hearing of four school chaplain bills in the Oklahoma Legislature, a Republican lawmaker opted to reintroduce a discarded bill from 2023 to advance the cause of integrating chaplains into public schools in the state. Moore County Rep. Kevin West’s strategic move secured House approval in a 54-37 vote, despite dissent from 20 Republicans. While the Senate’s decision on the bill is pending, House amendments tightened the criteria for volunteer or employed school chaplains, stipulating that they must not evangelize and must obtain approval from their faith community. Additionally, chaplains are mandated to possess a bachelor’s and master’s degree in theology or religious studies.

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