Worrying Trend: Pushing Religious Chaplains into Public Schools

Worrying Trend: Pushing Religious Chaplains into Public Schools

As Public Schools Week approaches, turn your attention to a troubling trend: Across the United States, the push to appoint religious chaplains to public schools is growing at an alarming rate.

As of today, legislatures in thirteen states, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma and Utah, have introduced bills that allow religious chaplains to serve as school counselors or volunteers in schools; Texas already has a law in place allowing chaplains in schools since it passed SB 763 in the summer of 2023.

Supporters of these types of bills say they want to fill a deep gap in the number of school counselors available to students. The American School Counselor Association recommends having one school counselor per 250 students, and according to data on its website, only two states in the US have the appropriate number of counselors.

Even under the guise of wanting to provide greater access to school counseling and mental health services for students, unqualified, unlicensed religious leaders are not what our children need. Also, why is there only one major religion that insists on this in the first place?

Let’s be clear: the coordinated effort to replace school counselors with Christian chaplains is not a well-intentioned attempt to address the national mental health and counseling shortage, but instead a very deliberate move to inject Christian dogma into the minds of young public school students. This is problematic not only for humanists and atheists, but also for followers of other religions such as Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism.

Keep an eye on Texas

To get a sense of how these proposed bills might play out, it’s important to look to Texas, which passed a law last year allowing chaplains in schools.

In general, critics of these types of bills argue that the criteria for qualifying as a “chaplain” for student counseling purposes are flimsy. In Texas, the debate before the passage of SB 763 included such questions, with one opponent of the bill saying it was “like an online marriage ceremony.”

These concerns are legitimate given that the final text in Texas SB 763 states that “a chaplain employed or volunteered under this chapter shall not be required to be certified by the State Educator Certification Board.” Chaplains hired to provide counseling to students in Texas schools under this law must pass only a criminal background check.

Individual school districts in Texas can impose their own requirements for school chaplains, but are not authorized to do so, although they have until March 1, 2024 to decide. They also could, as recently seen in the Katy Independent School District in Texas, to decide not to allow priests to counsel students.

Opponents of the school chaplain bills point out that they could actually do more harm than good. In this Texas Tribune article from last year, Dr. Lindsey Bira, a psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry at UT Health San Antonio who focuses on stress, trauma and anxiety, said, “…the priest is not trained in how the brain works or whatever helps it work best. Someone with a religious background may push through prayer or other strategies that increase shame.

Proposed school chaplain bills in other states differ in how each defines “chaplain,” what services can be performed in a school by a chaplain, and whether parents must be notified or give permission for their children to be counseled. It remains to be seen how this might play out across the country.

Why priests?

But even as lawmakers across the country put the most basic parameters into their proposed legislation, beyond what Texas did, the question remains: Why priests?

The answer is simple: States are opening the door to—and in many cases using taxpayer money to pay for—the religious indoctrination of students.

One of the biggest supporters of Texas SB 763 was Rocky Malloy, who heads the National Association of School Chaplains. NSCA describes itself as “a Christian spiritual ministry that provides spiritual care, counseling and practical support in the community to Pre-K through 12th grade students, teachers and their families, regardless of age, race, creed, color, sex, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, marital status or socio-economic status.’

As SB 763 made its way through the Texas legislative session, Malloy argued in testimony before the Texas Senate Education Committee that priests “are not in the business of converting people to religion.”

Yet NSCA’s parent organization, Mission Generation, which Malloy founded in 1990, has made no secret of its goals. It involves a three-pronged approach of specifically targeting educational institutions and providing instruction for chaplains so they can “spread God’s word one-on-one as well as in group settings.”

As the public debate over SB 763 began to heat up, Mission Generation’s website was taken down, although it is still available on the Internet Archive. The group’s intentions and goals can be found in clear language, which they outline as follows: “We influence those in education until the saving grace of Jesus is well known and students develop a personal relationship with Him.”

Why this matters

These bills appear to be less about the mental health and well-being of young, impressionable children and more about trying to turn schools into captive audiences for the promotion of Christian nationalism.

Most priests simply do not have the necessary training to adequately address the mental health challenges of young people, and by pretending they do, these people have the potential to cause significant harm to vulnerable young people.

The religious right is bringing priests into schools to indoctrinate young people into becoming the future foot soldiers of Christian nationalism. If they really cared about youth mental health, they wouldn’t be targeting trans* and queer youth across the country with vicious laws, banning books, or diverting much-needed funding to religious charter schools, among so many other harmful decisions.

How this push for chaplains in public schools will play out in the various state legislatures remains to be seen, but it is extremely important that we pay attention and reject this blatant push for Christian nationalism under the guise of concern for youth mental health and continue to we stand for humanistic values ​​and respect for the separation of church and state.

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