New Texas law allowing chaplains in public schools could be a model for other states

The measure has attracted national scrutiny and might be challenged in court.

By: - June 21, 2023 5:00 am
Uvalde Elementary students return.

Students arrive at Uvalde Elementary for the first day of school, on Sept. 6, 2022, in Uvalde, Texas, after a mass shooting earlier in the year at another school in the city left 19 children and two teachers dead. Texas has passed a law that will allow chaplains to provide counseling to students in public schools. Eric Gay/The Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas — A new law authorizing chaplains to provide counseling to students is propelling Texas to the forefront of a national push to inject religious expression into public schools.

The state’s Republican-led legislature approved the bill as part of a broader effort to expand the role of religion in education. The Texas Senate approved, but the House defeated, other bills this session that would have required public schools to display the Ten Commandments in every classroom; allowed districts to set aside classroom time for prayer or the reading of the Bible or other religious texts; and permitted teachers and other school employees to pray or engage in other forms of religious expression at school.

Nevertheless, this year’s push in Texas probably will be repeated in future sessions — and in other states. A growing number of Republicans identify with Christian nationalism, or the idea that the United States is firmly rooted in Christianity and should therefore favor that religion over all others. Last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of a Washington state football coach whose school district tried to prevent him from silently praying on the field with students after games provides crucial legal backing.

“Our Founding Fathers never intended separation of God from government,” said Republican state Sen. Mayes Middleton, the Senate sponsor. “And what this bill does is make sure our schools are not God-free zones.”

The chaplain bill has attracted national scrutiny and might be challenged in court. “This bill violates the religious freedom of every student and family in Texas,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, based in Washington, D.C. A spokesperson for the 75-year-old nonprofit said it is “keeping its options open.”

Brad Dacus, founder and president of the Pacific Justice Institute, which touts a mission “to defend the religious freedoms, parental rights and other civil liberties of people who cannot defend themselves,” said his Sacramento, California-based group is prepared to defend the chaplain law in court.

“This chaplain bill simply allows school districts the freedom to choose to have paid chaplains just like they have paid counselors,” said Dacus, who testified in favor of the bill in Austin.

The new Texas law does not explicitly say that chaplains should replace licensed school counselors. But many licensed mental health counselors and their allies in the legislature warned that the measure will result in substandard care for students at a time when many young people are struggling with mental health issues.

Unlike the state’s roughly 13,000 professional school counselors, who are required to have a master’s degree, chaplains aren’t required to have state certification or specific academic credentials.

“It’s a little bit absurd and insulting that that bill passed,” said Jill Adams, president-elect of the Texas School Counselor Association. She said her organization “will never be in favor of a chaplain replacing a school counselor — ever.”

Proponents countered that the measure fills a critical need by bringing in faith-based reinforcements to shore up a severe shortage of counselors and social workers. The bill doesn’t restrict the faith of chaplains who might serve in schools, and it doesn’t mandate any training requirements.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill into law Sunday, after it was passed during the state’s 140-day legislative session that ended May 29. Texas lawmakers are now in the first of what could be several special sessions, where Senate proponents of at least three of the failed religious bills hope they may be able to salvage the measures.

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Texas appears to be the first state to enact a chaplain bill. Its success, even as so many other religion bills failed, might spawn imitators in other states.

“It’s a game changer,” said Julie Pickren, a Republican member of the State Board of Education who pushed for the measure. The chaplains, she said, will be in schools “as a moral compass and a moral spiritual guide.”

Matthew Wilson, an associate political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas who specializes in religion, agreed that legislators in states such as Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Tennessee might follow Texas’ lead.

“I wouldn’t overstate the importance of the provision,” he said, “but I think it could start a trend in this regard. I think in a lot of states, particularly a lot of more conservative states, there’s been a pushback against what is perceived as the over-secularization of public schools, and the sense that part of the mental health epidemic among students and among young people has been their disconnection from spirituality.”

The conservative shift on the Supreme Court has been a major driver of the flurry of religious bills in Texas and other Republican-led legislatures. The court issued a watershed decision in June 2022 when it ruled 6-3 in favor of Joseph Kennedy, a football coach in a Washington state school district who was reprimanded for praying with players on the field.

“Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and a diverse Republic,” the justices wrote.

Dozens of religion-related bills were introduced during Texas’ legislative session, reflecting a broad variety of perspectives. Republicans in the Senate approved several of them, including the Ten Commandments measure and the prayer bills, but the proposals died in the House.

Wilson of SMU noted that even though both chambers are Republican-controlled, the House adheres to a more traditional chamber-of-commerce style of conservatism, while the Senate displays “much more of an appetite and zest for social conservative legislation.”

After Abbott convened a special session to resolve a showdown over property taxes, the Senate’s State Affairs Committee held a hearing on three failed religion bills resurrected from the regular session. Wilson said the hearing appears to be designed to encourage Abbott to put the bills on the agenda for official consideration in a special session.

Under the new chaplain measure, school districts must decide no later than six months after the law goes into effect on Sept. 1 whether to use chaplains to counsel students and staff, either as volunteers or paid employees. School districts must conduct background checks to ensure that a prospective school chaplain does not have a record as a sex offender.

State Sen. Jose Menendez, a San Antonio Democrat, predicted that most school districts “will do the right thing,” but said he worries that some school officials might replace a salaried professional counselor with a chaplain to “get them a lot cheaper.”

We need “mental health professionals, people who are trained in identifying issues of depression, anxiety, self-isolation, all the things that are leading young people to hurt themselves or others,” Menendez said. “This isn’t a time where we shouldn’t be doing anything that would potentially replace a trained counselor.”

A state-by-state report card produced by the Hopeful Futures Campaign, a coalition of national mental health advocacy groups, showed a shortage of school counselors in Texas, but bills to improve the ratio of counselors to students didn’t come up for a legislative hearing.

According to the report card, there is one counselor for every 423 students in Texas, compared with the recommended ratio of one to 250. Texas schools employ one school psychologist for every 4,962 students, far less than the recommended one per 500 students. And there is a single school social worker for every 13,604 Texas students, compared with the recommended one for 250.

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Zeph Capo, president of the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said the new law reflects “a gross misunderstanding” of roles played by counselors in helping students navigate the intricacies of educational systems, such as academic achievement tests and preparatory work for jobs and college.

“Chaplains may be great to talk to,” he said, “but it just completely undercuts and devalues the work that our counselors do for our students in so many ways.”

Texas state Rep. Cole Hefner, who sponsored the House version of the measure, said it will be up to school districts to set qualifications and requirements for the chaplains. He acknowledged during a House discussion, however, that chaplains aren’t required to have a master’s degree or prior teaching experience.

“Do you think a chaplain has the same qualifications as a school counselor?” he was asked by Democratic state Rep. James Talarico.

“I don’t think their qualifications all line up,” Hefner responded, “but I do think they both have important qualifications that contribute to helping our kids and teachers in our schools. … I trust our school districts to spell out what qualifications they would require and make those decisions.”

Middleton, the Senate sponsor, described the measure as a “permissive” policy that would enable school districts to augment counselors and tend to the needs of students and staff alike.

Chaplains have been part of our community for a long time,” Middleton said. “At the end of the day, they look after the personal needs of students, not just their academic needs. This is another tool on the table that is important for our public school students and employees as well.”

Middleton also pointed out that chaplains provide counseling in the military and in state prisons.

Several chaplains who testified in support of the bill noted that many chaplains are trained to deal with grief and loss and help students cope with depression and addiction.

“Having school chaplains can provide a way for students to make better life choices, avoid unhealthy lifestyles, and teach them coping mechanisms for stress that they deal with on a daily basis,” said Kathy Burden, the chief ministry officer for the International Fellowship of Chaplains, who testified with other chaplains in a Senate committee hearing.

Kelley Tucker of International Fellowship of Chaplains put it more succinctly.

“Chaplaincy is not about getting into a person’s head, but it’s about getting into their heart,” she said.


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David Montgomery
David Montgomery

David Montgomery is a Stateline correspondent based in Austin, Texas, where he covers state government and politics.