The Republican-controlled Texas Legislature has passed a bill to allow public schools to replace professional counselors with uncertified religious chaplains.
GOP lawmakers in the state House approved Senate Bill 763 on Wednesday, one day after their counterparts in the state Senate passed the legislation. The measure, which permits school districts "to employ or accept as volunteers chaplains to provide support, services, and programs for students," now heads to the desk of far-right Gov. Greg Abbott, who is expected to sign it into law.
In addition to undermining religious freedom, the legislation also advances the American Legislative Exchange Council's longstanding goal of weakening occupational licensing requirements, thus threatening both the secular foundations and quality of public education in the Lone Star State. The right-wing Christian lawmakers backing S.B. 763 and related bills have called the separation of church and state a "false doctrine."
Senate Bill 1515, which would have required teachers to display an edited version of the Ten Commandments in every classroom in Texas, was approved by Senate Republicans last month, but the proposal died in the House because the chamber didn't vote on it before midnight Tuesday.
"The purpose of these bills is clear: The same lawmakers trying to control what students think by banning books and censoring curricula now want to dictate what students worship."
S.B. 1515 "was an unconstitutional attack on our core liberties that threatened the freedom of and from religion we hold dear as Texans. It should never have gotten this close to passage," ACLU of Texas attorney David Donatti said in a statement. "Whether trying to place the Ten Commandments in every classroom or replacing school counselors with unlicensed chaplains, certain Texas lawmakers have launched a coordinated effort to force state-sponsored religion into our public schools."
"We cannot overlook their attempts to push legislation that would sanction religious discrimination and bullying," said Donatti. "The First Amendment guarantees families and faith communities—not politicians or the government—the right to instill religious beliefs in their children."
S.B. 763 and S.B. 1515 "came in a session of aggressive legislative measures in Texas and several other states aiming to weaken decades of distinction between religion and government," The Washington Post observed. "Supporters say they believe the [U.S.] Supreme Court's ruling last summer in Kennedy v. Bremerton, in favor of a high school football coach who prayed with players, essentially removed any guardrails between them."
Texas Senate Republicans "also passed a bill to allow districts to require schools to set aside time for staff and students to pray and read religious texts, and a second bill to allow public employees to 'engage in religious prayer and speech'—modeled after the coach ruling," the newspaper reported. "Those two bills failed to make it out of House committees Wednesday and were not considered likely to resurface this session."
Carisa Lopez, senior political director for the progressive Texas Freedom Network, denounced GOP lawmakers for approving S.B. 763.
"This bill violates the religious freedom of all faiths and Texans of non-faith by placing chaplains in our schools who are not required to be certified educators or omit their personal religious beliefs when working with students," Lopez said in a statement. "Chaplains, unlike counselors, are not given the professional training required to care for the mental health of all students, and we cannot be reasonably certain that every chaplain hired or allowed to volunteer would give unbiased and adequate support to an LGBTQIA+ student, someone grappling with reproductive health decisions, or a student who may struggle with suicidal ideation or self-harm."
"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," said Lopez.
"Yet again, our elected officials have squandered their opportunity to pass meaningful legislation that would keep kids safe, like commonsense gun reform or bills addressing the school counselor and teacher shortage," she added. "We will never stop fighting the religious right's agenda to inject their personal beliefs into our schools, and we urge Texans to hold these lawmakers accountable at the ballot box."
Rev. Erin Walter, a Unitarian Universalist minister in Texas, also condemned the state's GOP lawmakers for pushing theocratic legislation that violates the U.S. Constitution and, in the case of S.B. 763, could harm the well-being of students by leaving them in the care of unqualified chaplains rather than licensed counselors who have completed the requisite training.
"As a religious leader, I'm disgusted by this assault on religious freedom and the right of all religious communities to conduct their own religious education," said Walter. "As a mother, I'm angry that these politicians believe they know how to raise Texas children better than their own parents do."
"As a former public school teacher, I'm appalled by this erosion of public education as a means of preparing young people to thrive in our diverse state," Walter continued. "And as a fourth-generation Texan, I refuse to accept this government intrusion into our private lives."
Earlier this month, Rep. Cole Hefner (R-5), the House sponsor of S.B. 763, insisted during a floor debate that the legislation doesn't seek to promote religion.
"We have to give schools all the tools; with all we're experiencing, with mental health problems, other crises, this is just another tool," said Hefner.
But as The Texas Tribune reported, "opponents fear the bill is a 'Trojan horse' for evangelizing kids and will worsen the state's mental health crisis through disproven counseling approaches."
"Our elected officials have squandered their opportunity to pass meaningful legislation that would keep kids safe, like commonsense gun reform or bills addressing the school counselor and teacher shortage."
Critics of S.B. 763, including some religious groups and Christian Democrats, worry it could allow "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," the Tribune noted. "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."
According to the newspaper, "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."
During debate on the House floor, "a half-dozen Democratic lawmakers rose to ask Hefner to amend the bill, saying it didn't provide protection for a diversity of religions, among other things," the Post reported. "Hefner and the majority rejected almost all amendments, including one requiring parental consent and another requiring chaplains to serve students of all faiths and not proselytize."
"Groups that watch church-state issues say efforts nationwide to fund and empower religion—and, more specifically, a particular type of Christianity—are more plentiful and forceful than they have been in years," the newspaper noted. "Americans United for Separation of Church and State says it is watching 1,600 bills around the country in states such as Louisiana and Missouri. Earlier this year, Idaho and Kentucky signed into law measures that could allow teachers and public school employees to pray in front of and with students while on duty." However, the group "said it knows of no other bills that replace guidance counselors with chaplains."
In a blog post published earlier this week by the ACLU of Texas, Walter argued that "the purpose of these bills is clear: The same lawmakers trying to control what students think by banning books and censoring curricula now want to dictate what students worship."