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Texas Primed to Put Chaplains in Public Schools
May 17, 2023
AUSTIN, Texas, May 17, 2023 /Christian Newswire/ -- Texas lawmakers passed unprecedented legislation last week that will allow public schools across Texas to hire paid or volunteer chaplains to complement school counselors in providing "support, services, and programs for students." According to SB 763, chaplains would have the ability to act as a mental health resource, aid in suicide prevention, provide behavioral health services, and engage in restorative justice practices.

The bill is expected to be signed by Governor Greg Abbott in the coming weeks, and if enacted, the law would be the "first of its kind in the nation," said State Rep. Steve Toth, one of the bill's cosponsors. The law would take effect on September 1 for the 2023-2024 academic school year where each public school district and open-enrollment charter school would vote on hiring or allowing volunteer chaplains in their schools and would determine how the chaplain would support their schools and programs. While chaplains would not be required to be board certified as counselors or teachers must be, the bill states they must be "endorsed by an organization recognized by the U.S. Department of Defense, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, or the Texas Department of Criminal Justice."

Chaplains have a long history of service within the military and in many police and fire departments, prisons, and faith-based schools around the country. The Oklahoma-based National School Chaplain Association (NSCA), which provides chaplains in more than 22,000 faith-based schools in 23 countries, supported the bill as part of its larger campaign to place more chaplains in schools. According to their website, the goal of a school chaplain is to help provide students and teachers with "spiritual care" amid the prevalence of violence, bullying and mental health issues.

The Texas bill and NSCA's campaign both began in part due to the findings in the "Report on Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2021" from the U.S. Department of Education. The report's key nationwide findings state:

  • In 2020, students ages 12–18 experienced 285,400 violent victimizations at school, which translates to 11 victimizations per 1,000 students.
  • Twenty-two percent of students ages 12–18 reported being bullied at school, and students who are bullied are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and skip or drop out of school.
  • A majority of public schools reported inadequate funding and access for mental health services.

The NSCA claims that schools with chaplains have seen significant decreases in violence, bullying, dropout rates as well as improved school safety, teacher retention and grades.

NSCA founder and CEO Rocky Malloy said that spiritual care has long been absent from the public school system. He noted that chaplains share peace, strength, love, and hope in schools and can provide students and teachers a solid spiritual foundation and a safe space to express their pain and frustrations rather than having to navigate emotional and complex situations alone.

Another impetus for Texas lawmakers passing the measure is the "inadequate" access to mental health resources. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 students to every counselor. However, Texas has had a significant shortage with 392 students to one counselor in 2021.

Primary bill sponsor State Rep. Cole Hefner said this legislation "is about giving school districts every tool that we can in the toolbox" to address student mental health and bolster support during crises. Opponents of the measure decry that chaplains in public schools will be there to proselytize and promote a state-preferred religion. However, Hefner says that will not be the case and that chaplains are needed to augment overwhelmed counselors.

Malloy confirmed that the purpose of chaplains in schools is to improve school safety and noted chaplains are trained not to intrude on a student's religious beliefs.

"Chaplains operate within an individual's belief and convictions – they are not working to convert people to religion," said Malloy.

The Texas legislature is also considering several other bills, such as SB 1515, that would allow the 10 Commandments to be posted in public schools, and SB 1396, which would permit public schools to set aside time during the school day for students and employees to pray and read the Bible or other religious texts.

Texas lawmakers think the bills are likely to withstand legal challenges due to recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings favoring the exercise of religion, such as Liberty Counsel's 9-0 victory in Shurtleff v. City of Boston where the city of Boston unconstitutionally censored raising the Christian flag in an open public square, and in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, where a Washington State public school district illegally suppressed a high school coach's private religious speech by preventing him from praying silently on the football field after games. In the Kennedy case, Liberty Counsel argued in an amicus brief that the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from favoring one religion over another, provides no justification for suppressing Coach Joe Kennedy's private, religious speech.

Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, "Chaplains have played a traditional and important role providing spiritual care to our military and first responders. They function as "spiritual" first responders that could make a positive difference in the lives of students and teachers. These Texas measures, which include making spiritual counseling available in public schools, are grounded in the historical and traditional practices of religion in which the Supreme Court has recently ruled that those traditions do not establish religion but rather are part of the free exercise of religion guaranteed under the First Amendment. More states would do well to make spiritual care available to their students."

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SOURCE Liberty Counsel

CONTACT: Mat Staver, 407-875-1776, Liberty@LC.org