Unlicensed religious chaplains may counsel students in Texas’ public schools after lawmakers OK proposal

Unlicensed religious chaplains would be allowed to work in Texas public schools under a bill passed by the Texas Legislature on Wednesday.

Senate Bill 763 was approved in an 84-60 vote in the Texas House, one day after it passed the Texas Senate. It allows Texas schools to use safety funds to pay for unlicensed chaplains to work in mental health roles. Volunteer chaplains will also be allowed in schools.

The bill was delayed last week after Texas House members sought an amendment that would have required chaplains to have similar accreditation as chaplains who work in prisons or the U.S. military. That amendment was defeated during negotiations between both chambers Friday.

Earlier this month, House Democrats also offered amendments to bar proselytizing or attempts to convert students from one religion to another; to require chaplains to receive consent from the parents of school children; and to make schools provide chaplains from any faith or denomination requested by students. All of those amendments failed.

MORE: Key supporter of Texas school chaplain bill has pushed for evangelism in schools

Rep. Cole Hefner, who authored the House version of the bill, said in debates that local school boards will be allowed to set requirements for chaplains.

"I want to make sure that we’re making it clear — that everybody knows — that schools may choose to do this or not, and that they can put whatever rules and regulations in place that they see fit," he said.

As with other faith-driven legislation this session — including a bill to require the Ten Commandments in classrooms that failed to reach a crucial vote on Tuesday — conservative Christians argued that religious chaplains could help prevent school shootings, drug use, suicide and other societal ills by returning God to classrooms.

And, in legislative hearings, they assured lawmakers that chaplains were not interested in proselytizing. Last week, however, The Texas Tribune reported that the head of the National School Chaplain Association — a key supporter of the chaplains bill — has led another group for decades that touted its ability to use school chaplains for evangelizing to kids.

Bill opponents, including some religious groups and Christian Democrats, fear the legislation will be a Trojan horse for religious activists to recruit in schools and would exacerbate tensions at local school boards, which would have the final say on whether to allow chaplains in schools.

"This is not what a real chaplaincy program looks like," Joshua Houston of Texas Impact, an interfaith organization that advocates on behalf of some of the state’s largest religious groups, said last week. "We have chaplains as members. We have seminaries as members that train chaplains. They all have qualifications. In this bill, they are completely unqualified."

"It is akin to an online marriage ordination," he said of the bill’s training requirements.

Worse, opponents say, the bill could deepen the state’s youth mental health crisis by providing students with unproven, lightly supervised and nonscientific counseling that treats common childhood problems, such as anxiety, as "sins" or issues that can merely be prayed away.

"Spirituality is a predictor of well-being and resiliency, and a chaplain can be a source of development of that in young people," said Dr. Lindsay Bira, a psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry at UT Health San Antonio who focuses on stress, trauma and anxiety. But "a chaplain is not trained in how the brain works or what helps it work best. Someone with a religious background could push prayer or other strategies that increase shame. And if those don’t work, the child is going to feel like their relationship with God is broken, and that they’re a broken and damaged person as a result."

The bill comes amid a broader push by conservative Christians to insert their religious beliefs into public life. This session, lawmakers have called church-state separation a "false doctrine," a claim that has been echoed by top GOP figures such as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. And in hearings, influential Christian legal groups have testified in support of bills that they believe could lead to a "restoration of faith" in an increasingly secular America.

In a statement, Carisa Lopez, senior political director for the progressive Texas Freedom Network, said the chaplains bill violates children's religious freedom because it does not require chaplains to omit their religious beliefs, which she said they could impose on kids. And she excoriated lawmakers for passing the bill on the one-year anniversary of the deadly Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde.

"I find it egregious — especially on the one-year anniversary of the Robb Elementary shooting in Uvalde — that lawmakers would pass a bill allowing chaplains to be compensated with funding meant to address school safety," Lopez said. "Yet again, our elected officials have squandered their opportunity to pass meaningful legislation that would keep kids safe, like common sense gun reform or bills addressing the school counselor and teacher shortage."

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