Florida enacts troubling law authorizing volunteer chaplain programs in public schools

by | May 23, 2024

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis says that public school students going through problems need some “soul craft” as part of their public education. He signed controversial legislation into law authorizing public school districts to allow chaplains to serve in schools. Under the law, chaplains would provide unspecified voluntary services to students whose parents consent.

Adding to the concern that chaplains will use the public school setting to promote their religious beliefs, many opponents noted that the law requires no specific training or credentials before working with school children as a volunteer chaplain under the program. Associated Press reports:

“When you have a military chaplain, they go through intensive training and they have to be in a position where they can provide information which is factually correct and appropriate to the situation,” said Democratic Sen. Lori Berman of Palm Beach County.  Without that training, a chaplain could provide psychologically damaging counseling, Berman said. She suggested schools add more social workers, guidance counsellors or psychologists if they need them.

The outlines of a legal challenge may already be taking shape. Church-state separation advocates and noted provocateurs the Satanic Temple (which have successfully infiltrated bad ideas in Florida before) have expressed interest in sending volunteer “chaplains” to serve, an idea the governor rejects, but on what grounds? The Orlando Sentinel reports:

DeSantis contended that the organization would not be allowed to participate.

“Now, some have said that if you do a school chaplain program, that somehow you’re going to have Satanists running around in our schools,” DeSantis said. “We’re not playing those games in Florida. That is not a religion, that is not qualified to be able to participate in this. So we’re going to be using common sense when it comes to this.”

School districts that allow volunteer chaplains may have a difficult time blocking Satanic Temple volunteers from participating without appearing to run afoul of the First Amendment, which prohibits government from engaging in religious discrimination (and surely bars the governor from deciding by fiat what is or isn’t a religion).

Florida has become the second state – after Texas – to enact legislation permitting chaplains to serve in public schools. BJC has opposed this effort from the start, organizing a letter from clergy from across the state opposing the idea.  As BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler implored during debate over the Texas law, “Public schools are not the place for religious instruction — that is best left to houses of worship, religious institutions and families.”

As BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman noted in an interview with the Florida Phoenix, Florida’s leaders could look to Texas for how they handled this issue. “As a growing number of chaplains speak out, school districts will see that these proposals are not simple support for students but, in fact, are deeply problematic,” she said.

Many groups are denouncing these programs, with chaplains, faith groups and civil rights organizations all sharing why. If you are a chaplain opposed to this program spreading, you can sign this letter from chaplains across the country.

Fortunately, there is a way for school districts in both Texas and Florida to reject this misguided idea: by declining to create chaplain programs. Just because the states have authorized them doesn’t mean they are required. The largest 25 school districts in Texas all voted not to create chaplain programs.

For more on this topic and to make your voice heard, check out BJC’s resource page on public school chaplain programs.