DALLAS -- An upcoming law allowing unlicensed religious chaplains inside schools will be "harmful" to students, more than 100 Texas chaplains said in an open letter Tuesday, urging school districts across the state to not allow what they described as an attempt by the government to insert religion in the classroom.
The letter, organized by progressive religious groups, comes just before Senate Bill 763 is enacted into law Sept. 1. Signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in June, the law will allow individual school districts to "employ or accept as a volunteer a chaplain to provide support, services and programs for students," and requires them to vote whether to do so within six months.
Chaplains would be subject to background checks but are not required to hold any license.
During debate over the bill, proponents said the chaplains could be used by students as a support system and to reduce school violence, shootings and mental health crises. They also pointed out that the law, instead of mandating chaplains, lets school districts decide on their own whether to use them.
But opponents described it as the latest attempt by Texas lawmakers to inject Christianity into the public school system without regard for students of different faiths.
They also criticized the idea that chaplains would be paid using funds earmarked for school safety and security -- including employing licensed counselors and mental health professionals -- as Texas schools face a shortage of such practitioners.
"Chaplaincy programs do not train chaplains on active shooter situations or to be public safety professionals," said the Tuesday letter, which was organized by the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Interfaith Alliance and Texas Impact, and signed by chaplains of different denominations and faiths across the state. "As trained chaplains, we strongly caution against the government assertion of authority for the spiritual development and formation of our public school children."
Sen. Mayes Middleton, R-Galveston, who authored Senate Bill 763, did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment about the letter. Upon passage of the bill, Middleton said on Twitter it allows chaplains to play the role of "representing God's presence within our public schools."
The law also misapplies the title of "chaplain," the letter said -- qualifications for board-certified chaplains include an undergraduate degree, advanced study and clinical pastoral education. Cantor Sheri Allen, who co-founded Makom Shelanu Congregation in Fort Worth and has worked as a hospice chaplain, said the fact nearly anybody can apply as a volunteer leads to a risk of proselytization in schools.
"Under the guise of being a chaplain you're going to have some spiritual clergy that are going to impose their own brand of spiritual support on all kids," Allen said.
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