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Chaplains, Civil Rights, and Faith Groups Oppose Public-School Chaplain Programs

Chaplains, Civil Rights, and Faith Groups Oppose Public-School Chaplain Programs

WASHINGTON – In three open letters to state lawmakers, more than 200 individual chaplains, 38 faith groups, and 34 civil rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, are speaking out today against a wave of proposed state legislation seeking to install chaplains in public schools across the country to provide student-support services, including counseling and other mental-health assistance.

Allowing chaplains to provide counseling and other support services would violate students’ and families’ religious-freedom rights by inevitably leading to religious coercion and evangelizing of students. Additionally, because chaplains are typically not trained or certified to provide educational or counseling services to youth, students are likely to receive inadequate mental-health support that, in some cases, may be affirmatively harmful.

Following the passage of a 2023 Texas law authorizing public-school chaplains, there has been a disturbing rise in copycat legislation. 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 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.”

The three open letters released today 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.

  • “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.”
  • “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.”

The ACLU joins a nationwide, interfaith effort to push back against these unconstitutional efforts to impose religion on public-school students. Below are additional comments from the individuals and organizations opposing this legislation:

“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 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 Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. “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.”

 

About ACLU

For more than 100 years, the ACLU has worked in courts, legislatures, and communities to protect the constitutional rights of all people, including First Amendment rights. With a nationwide network of offices and millions of members and supporters, the ACLU takes on the toughest civil liberties fights in pursuit of liberty and justice for all.

About American Atheists

American Atheists is a national civil rights organization that, since 1963, has strived to achieve religious equality for all Americans by defending what Thomas Jefferson called the “wall of separation” between government and religion. We envision a pluralistic society where atheists and nonreligious people can participate fully without discrimination or stigma and where all people are guaranteed equality. We work to protect civil rights, advance political equality, achieve social inclusion, and empower atheists and other nonreligious people through advocacy, education, and community building.

About Americans United

Americans United is a religious freedom advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, AU educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom. Learn more at www.au.org.

About BJC

BJC (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty) is an 88-year-old religiously based organization working to defend faith freedom for all and protect the institutional separation of church and state in the historic Baptist tradition. BJC is the home of the Christians Against Christian Nationalism campaign.

About Freedom From Religion Foundation

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (www.ffrf.org) is a national nonprofit organization with 40,000 members across the country. It protects the constitutional separation between state and church and educates about nontheism.

About Interfaith Alliance

Interfaith Alliance is a network of people of diverse faiths and beliefs from across the country working together to build a resilient democracy and fulfill America’s promise of religious freedom and civil rights not just for some, but for all. The organization mobilizes powerful coalitions to challenge Christian nationalism and religious extremism, while fostering a better understanding of the healthy boundaries between religion and government.

About the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

For more than six decades, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (the RAC) has worked to educate, inspire, and mobilize the Reform Jewish community to advocate for social justice. We mobilize around federal, state, provincial, and local legislation on more than 70 pressing socioeconomic issues, including gun violence prevention, immigration, reproductive rights, and criminal justice reform.

As a joint instrumentality of the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, we represent the values of the largest and most diverse Jewish Movement in North America to governments at all levels.

 

Originally published at https://www.aclu.org/press-releases/chaplains-civil-rights-and-faith-groups-oppose-public-school-chaplain-programs

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