Ten Commandments bill fails, chaplain in schools measure passes as legislative session in Texas ends

by | Jun 5, 2023

The Texas Legislature meets in regular session (for 140 days) only once every two years. Bills that don’t get passed by the end of the session expire and can’t be reintroduced until the next session.

The 2023 session just came to a close, and here’s an update on the outcome of some Texas legislation related to religious liberty we have been following

A troubling bill (SB 1515) that would have required every public school classroom in Texas to prominently post the Ten Commandments failed to make it out of a House committee before the end of the legislative session, ending its chances of becoming law this term. SB 1515 passed the state Senate, but went no further in the face of fierce grassroots opposition. BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler called the measure a “violation of religious liberty,” and warned that “the government should not be in the position of making religious decisions.” You can hear conversations on it in episode 20 and episode 21 of this season of the Respecting Religion podcast.

Two other bills targeting religious liberty in public schools that passed the Texas Senate also failed to emerge from the House. SB 1396 would have allowed school districts to require a designated religious time in public schools for prayer and reading Scripture. SB 1556 would have allowed school employees – including teachers, coaches, and administrative staff – to engage in religious expression while on duty, unless infringing that right is necessary to further a compelling state interest.

These bills and others in state legislatures around the country appear to be attempts to test the limits of the Supreme Court’s opinion in Kennedy v Bremerton last year. Although the Biden administration recently issued guidance confirming that the ruling does not fundamentally alter the church-state landscape in public school settings, many are using the decision as the basis for bills such as the Ten Commandments proposal to increase government expressions of religion. Fortunately, these three met with enough reasoned opposition to fail.

Unfortunately, SB 763 did pass both houses of the Texas Legislature and is headed to the governor for his signature. The bill would allow school districts to hire chaplains to fill certain roles, such as student counselors, without any definition or minimum standards for who could use the title “chaplain.” As BJC Associate General Counsel Jennifer Hawks explained, replacing licensed counselors with an unlicensed religious title threatens to insert religious indoctrination into public education. This fight now moves to the local level as each school district is supposed to vote on whether to have chaplains as employees or volunteers.

Monitoring state legislation is essential to protecting religious liberty for all. In this case, the intense attention brought on the Ten Commandments bill stopped it from becoming law. The governor has called at least one special session so far, so we’ll see if any other bills resurface. And, we will be watching again in 2025, Texas!