HomePoliticsSome state lawmakers want school chaplains as part of a "rescue mission"...

Some state lawmakers want school chaplains as part of a “rescue mission” for public education

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Lawmakers in more than a dozen states have proposed legislation to allow spiritual chaplains in public schools, a measure advocates say will alleviate a youth mental health crisis, boost staff retention and provide spiritual care will offer to students who can. cannot afford or access religious schools.

Conservatives also argue that religious foundations will act as a “rescue mission” for what they say are the declining values ​​of public schools, an issue that has prompted the Republican-controlled Legislature to fight for issues such as parental control of the curriculum, restrictions on books and education in the field of education. gender identity and state-funded tuition support for private and religious schools.

But many chaplains and interfaith organizations oppose the campaign for chaplaincy, calling the motivation offensive and describing the dangers of introducing a position of authority to children without clear standards or boundaries.

“They’re going to engage students, sometimes when they’re most vulnerable, and there’s going to be no check on whether they’re able to convert, what they can say to kids who are struggling with really difficult issues. ” says Maureen O’Leary, organizational director at Interfaith Alliance.

The organization has shared concerns with lawmakers and school boards, saying schools should be “neutral spaces where students can achieve their full potential,” O’Leary said.

“This is not a matter of being pro-religion or anti-religion,” she said. “This is a question of the proper role of religion as it applies to public schools.”

Texas kicks off a national campaign

Texas became the first state to allow school chaplains under a law passed in 2023.

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The National School Chaplain Association, which identifies itself as a Christian chaplain, says on its website that it was “instrumental” in leading the Texas bill. The organization is a subsidiary of Mission Generation, which was founded in 1999 to bring Jesus to classrooms around the world. In a December 2023 newsletter, NSCA celebrated Texas for starting a “national movement to put God back in public education.”

NSCA chaplains “provide holistic care, guidance and safety to all people, at all times, regardless of their personal beliefs or non-beliefs” and the organization’s statement of faith is typical of support agencies, an association representative said in an email.

After the bill passed, dozens of Texas chaplains representing different religions and denominations jointly wrote to school boards, warning that the law does not require “chaplains to refrain from proselytizing while at school or to serve students of different religious backgrounds .”

The law ordered more than 1,200 school districts to decide by March 1 whether to allow chaplains as employees or as volunteers. Many of the biggest have opted out.

Houston and Austin said volunteer roles and responsibilities remained unchanged, so a volunteer would not provide chaplain services. The Dallas school board said chaplains are not allowed to be employees or volunteers at this time.

In the meantime, several school chaplain bills have been introduced in many Southern and Midwestern states, with varying degrees of success.

A school chaplain bill has passed both houses of the Florida Legislature and is awaiting Governor Ron DeSantis’ signature. School policies should describe the services of a volunteer chaplain and require parental consent.

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Indiana’s proposal, which passed in one chamber but failed in the other, specified that chaplains would provide secular services unless students and parents agree to non-secular services. Some lawmakers wondered where that line would be drawn and how a student would know.

In Utah, Rep. Keven Stratton told his colleagues that recent Supreme Court decisions on religious freedom offer an opportunity for school chaplains and a return to the tradition of acknowledging God in public institutions.

John Johnson, his counterpart in the Utah Senate, where the bill ultimately failed without full support from the Republican Party, said he observed an “outright disregard for religious principles within our schools” during committee meetings. He said this would have consequences, such as more families choosing alternatives to public school.

“It would be helpful and much easier if my colleagues would view our efforts here not as an attack but as a rescue mission,” he said in the Senate.

Increasingly, then-President Donald Trump’s proposals to government agencies are aimed at breaking down the wall between church and public schools, an effort that civil rights groups say undermines equal treatment for all faiths and threatens religious minorities.

Public schools have not been allowed to lead students in classroom prayer since 1962, when the Supreme Court ruled that doing so violated the First Amendment clause banning the establishment of a state religion.

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The Supreme Court case, brought by a coach who was fired for praying on the field, concerned the balance between the religious rights and freedom of expression of teachers and staff and the rights of students not to feel coerced into religious practices. The decision to back a praying football coach joined a series of rulings in favor of religious accusers.

Concept of chaplains is ‘very gray’

Chaplains, traditionally a minister who preaches outside a congregation, have long served in the US. But the modern role is “very gray,” says Wendy Cadge, director of the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, in that it is not uniform or universal. understood.

Chaplains serve in the U.S. Congress, in the military, and in prisons, and each has strict hiring and service standards. Hospitals, police and fire departments, colleges and private companies also hire chaplains with varying standards.

Many chaplains have seminary or ministry training in and adherence to a particular faith. But chaplains who serve in multicultural settings may also be required to complete professional, supervised training called clinical pastoral education.

Large hospitals are especially likely to employ chaplains and offer training in clinical pastoral education.

Patients and their families regularly experience existential crises and are vulnerable, said Eric Johnson, director of spiritual care at UnityPoint Health’s hospitals in the Des Moines area.

The training helps chaplains learn how to serve untethered to their faith so that “transference or reactivity doesn’t get in the way of truly meeting people’s needs,” Johnson said.

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