Chaplains, faith groups, and civil rights organizations oppose public-school chaplain programs

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March 6, 2024

Logan Bayroff, Interfaith Alliance; 516-965-5159

Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, BJC; 713-614-4946

Laura Frank, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism Phone: 267-234-1497

ACLU Media,
Amit Pal, Freedom From Religion Foundation; 608-213-2819

Melina Cohen, American Atheists; 908-344-3557

Liz Hayes, Americans United; 724-493-2834

Chaplains, faith groups, and civil rights organizations oppose public-school chaplain programs
A growing number of states are considering legislation to allow official school clergy

WASHINGTON – In three open letters to state lawmakers, more than 200 individual chaplains, along with dozens of faith groups and civil rights organizations, are speaking out today against a wave of proposed state legislation seeking to install chaplains in public schools across the country.

This year alone, bills in at least 14 states have proposed allowing public schools to employ (or accept as volunteers) chaplains to provide student-support services, including counseling and other mental-health assistance. The legislation follows a similar measure passed in Texas last year.

The open letters highlight the dangers of allowing chaplains, who are typically not trained or certified to provide educational or mental-health services to youth, to assume the responsibilities of qualified professional school counselors and other school staff. Students are likely to receive inadequate mental-health support that, in some cases, may be affirmatively harmful.

In addition, allowing chaplains in public schools would violate students’ and families’ religious-freedom rights by inevitably leading to religious coercion and evangelizing of students. As explained in the chaplains’ letter, chaplains are trained to provide religious counseling to people in spiritual need. Not only are they unqualified to provide student mental-health services, but chaplains typically do not have the necessary experience or training to ensure that they adhere to schools’ educational mandates and avoid veering into proselytizing and other promotion of religion, which is unconstitutional when undertaken by school employees or volunteers.

To date, school-chaplain bills have been introduced in 14 states in 2024, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana (pre-filed), Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Utah. The three open letters released today–one by a group of more than 200 individual chaplains, another signed by 38 faith groups, and the third endorsed by 34 civil rights organizations–urge state legislators to protect the integrity of public schools, as well as students’ religious freedom and mental well-being, by rejecting proposed chaplaincy programs.

“As trained chaplains, we strongly caution against the government assertion of authority for the spiritual development and formation of our public school children,” states the letter from more than 200 individual chaplains in 40 states. “Families and religious institutions–not public school officials–should direct the religious education of our children.”

“Government-sanctioned chaplains may be permissible in some limited settings—but not in our public schools,” the 38 faith groups write. “For example, our government has provided chaplains in the military, prisons, and hospitals—places where chaplains are needed to accommodate the religious-exercise rights of people who would otherwise not be able to access religious services. Public school children face no such barriers.”

“All should feel welcome in public schools,” write the 34 civil rights organizations. “Even well-intentioned chaplain policies will undermine this fundamental premise of our public-education system and violate our longstanding First Amendment principles.”

“Houses of worship and families are best equipped to provide religious education and spiritual guidance for children and youth,” said Holly Hollman, general counsel and associate executive director of BJC (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty). “Efforts to put religious leaders in official roles in the public schools invade a realm of religious freedom that is properly protected by the separation of the institutions of church and state. Families and the religious decisions they make in raising children are properly shaped by congregations chosen by families and not the government.”

“In America, Jews and other religious minorities have been uniquely free, in law and in practice, to practice our faith and to organize our communal lives without government interference,” said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “These school chaplain bills, which are in direct violation of the principle of separation of church and state enshrined in our constitution, are a threat to our collective religious liberty. It is our obligation as religious leaders to strongly condemn the chaplain bills and work together to ensure our children do not face any kind of religious proselytizing or persecution in our public schools.”

“As a minister, I know that chaplains can play an appropriate and important role in the lives of many families – but their place is not in our public schools,” said Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, President and CEO of Interfaith Alliance. “Putting chaplains in public schools erodes the separation of religion and government and opens our students up to potential religious coercion. That’s why this broad and diverse coalition is standing together to challenge these dangerous bills wherever they are introduced across the country.”

“Our nation’s students need evidence-based services from qualified mental health professionals – not religious instruction, recruitment, and coercion,” said Nick Fish, President of American Atheists. “Without sufficient safeguards in place for students’ wellbeing and constitutional rights, this legislation could open the door to discrimination against students the chaplains deem objectionable, including those who are nonreligious.”

“Schools should not be swapping mental health professionals for unlicensed outside adults,” said Freedom From Religion Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Students are entitled to qualified help for mental health support or suicide prevention.”

“The constitutional promise of church-state separation requires that students and parents – not public school officials, state legislatures or government-imposed religious leaders – get to make their own decisions about religion,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “Public schools should never force any particular religion on students. In order to protect the religious freedom of all students and families, legislators should ensure that certified school counselors – not chaplains – continue to support our students. In America, there shouldn’t be any doubt that public schools welcome and are inclusive of all students. Public schools are not Sunday schools.”

“The First Amendment protects the right of all students to attend public schools without the risk of school staff evangelizing them or imposing religion in any other way,” said Heather L. Weaver, Senior Staff Attorney for the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “Allowing chaplains on campus will undermine this fundamental constitutional principle and make our public schools unwelcoming environments for students who may hold different religious beliefs and values than their school’s official clergy.”