Bill allowing schools to hire chaplains stirs controversy, pushback

By Patrick M. Davis

June 30, 2023


The American Civil Liberties Union has sent a letter to Texas school districts and charter schools warning them about a bill that allows school counselors to be replaced by religious chaplains.

Gov. Greg Abbott recently signed this bill, SB 763, into law. The bill requires school districts to vote by March 1 of next year on whether they will allow schools to have chaplains on staff.

Rev. Erin Walter is the executive director of the Texas Unitarian Universalist Justice Ministry and has written about this bill for ACLU Texas. She joined Texas Standard to discuss the bill and its implications. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: First, can you describe the typical duties of a chaplain?

Erin Walter: That’s a good question. I have served as a chaplain in a hospital setting and in the YMCA community center since I love the work of chaplaincy. It can involve being present for people, being present to whatever their spiritual practice or religious background is, and being with them in prayer or just in listening or sitting with them and holding their hand in the hospital.

But there are others. I’ve heard many occasions where a chaplain may proselytize in one of those settings, which is not the kind of chaplaincy that we’d like to see, but we know that does happen. So it kind of depends on who the chaplain is with what they might see as their role.

Well, I understand that in addition to being a minister, you’ve also had some experience as an educator. Can you tell us how you think SB 763 could impact students and educators?

Oh, gosh. Well, I just think that it’s so important that our students and our school staff have the support that they need, and counseling is a part of that. If we don’t have trained counselors in our schools, that puts an extra burden on our teachers and our administrative staff that are already deeply, deeply taxed by the many needs of our public school students today.

I also anticipate that if we have chaplains that are coming from a particular religious tradition, and we know that a lot of these bills are coming out of Christian nationalism, that those chaplains could inject new problems into the lives of our students – you know, oppression against our LGBTQ students or espousing religious views that may very well not align with students that are there. And so those are new problems that will need counseling unto themselves. And then who’s the counselor to be there?

So I have deep concern as a mother, as a former public school teacher, as a chaplain myself, and someone who has benefited from school counselors in my own life and my own family for the implications of that. We are telling folks from the Texas Justice Ministry now to please be contacting all of their school boards about it.

The letter the ACLU sent to school districts defines this bill as “religious coercion.” Do you think putting chaplains in schools is coercion?

Absolutely. When you put someone from a particular religious view in our public schools, it will undoubtedly lead to coercion. I just can’t see another way. Why would they bother to strip away these much needed counselors unless they were trying to promote a particular form of religion?

Texas School Chaplin Letter

So finally, what are you watching for next in regards to SB 763?

Well, I appreciate our partners that are taking up some of these bills legally, such as the ACLU. But I also really just call upon Texans like myself, people of faith, who I love chaplaincy. I think chaplaincy is so important and you get to be alongside people in hospitals and in religious context at the most difficult times of their life. That does not mean that we need to be putting that into our public schools.

So we are calling upon our folks to be taking action, for Texans of conscience to reach out to their legislators and to especially school boards and really impress upon folks to vote against this. As we’ve talked about, there’s a deadline coming up March 1 of 2024 for our school districts to vote on this.

So I ask my fellow parents and Texans to to apply pressure so that we keep our public schools welcoming for people of all faiths and no faith.

This piece was republished from KERA News.

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