The idea has backing from conservative and religious groups yet is opposed by some in the clergy and religious freedom organizations.

Initially proposed in Texas, several conservative-leaning states including Florida, Oklahoma, and Kansas are turning to chaplains seeking a potential “alternative to mental health counselors” for students. | Francis Chung/POLITICO

TALLAHASSEE, Florida — Florida is on the verge of becoming the latest state to embrace chaplains on school campuses as similar proposals gain momentum across the country.

Initially proposed in Texas, several conservative-leaning states including Florida, Oklahoma, and Kansas this year are turning to chaplains seeking a potential “alternative to mental health counselors” for students. Critics, however, have hammered the legislation for lacking clear qualifications and standards for prospective chaplains, leading to fears of possible proselytizing at public schools.

“There are a number of families and parents who would like their children to have options to speak to others and counsel and provide guidance,” Sen. Erin Grall, a Vero Beach Republican sponsoring the legislation, said during a hearing Tuesday. “And maybe it’s not a traditional mental health counselor that they need, but really just another trusted adult.”

Florida’s legislation would clear a path for local school districts and charter schools — if they choose — to permit chaplains to provide “support, services, and programs to students.” The bill spells out that a chaplain participating in a school program must pass a background check but doesn’t otherwise require any certifications.

Senators advanced their school chaplain proposal, FL SB1044 (24R), in the Appropriations Committee on Education on Tuesday by a 4-1 vote with one hearing left for the legislation. House lawmakers will consider, and most likely pass, a similar bill, FL HB931 (24R), on the floor later this week.

The idea has backing from conservative and religious groups yet is opposed by some in the clergy and religious freedom organizations. The debate is similar to what played out in Texas, where a group of 100 clergy last year urged school districts against employing chaplains under the state law, claiming they are “not a replacement for school counselors or safety measures in our public schools.” Further, opponents contend that chaplains undergo “extensive” training to offer spiritual care, something that isn’t required for the volunteers in Florida or elsewhere.

“We cannot reduce this important job to somebody who is just able to pass a level 2 background check,” Rev. James Golden, who represents Pastors for Florida Children, told lawmakers Tuesday.

Republicans pushing for the bill claim it will offer help for struggling students who are in the “middle of a battlefield” with “spiritual, psychological and sometimes physical warfare being waged” within the public school system. One lawmaker, Sen. Danny Burgess, a Zephyrhills Republican, at a hearing earlier this month said the legislation could combat the “dystopian hellhole that society seems to be quickly forcing itself into.”

Florida’s legislation lacks specifications for trainings or certifications by design so that local schools will have more chaplain options available to them, according to lawmakers. The bill requires schools to get written parental consent before a student can receive supports or services from a chaplain. Additionally, districts would be required to post on school websites a list of approved volunteer chaplains and their religious affiliations.

“We’re empowering the school districts to make decisions that are in the best interest of their children in their community,” Sen. Gayle Harrell, a Stuart Republican who favors the bill, said Tuesday.

Still, the lack of training and certification requirements has riled some Democrats who oppose the legislation in both chambers.

“Anyone dealing with children should be licensed, trained, certified to do that,” said Sen. Tracie Davis, a Jacksonville Democrat who was the only senator to vote against the bill Tuesday.

School chaplain bills in Florida and across the country are being inspired, at least in part, by the law passed in Texas last year that was the first of its kind. And one group, the National School Chaplain Association based in Norman, Oklahoma, was instrumental in helping Texas lawmakers back the legislation.

Since the success in Texas, the organization is “spearheading” legislation elsewhere like Oklahoma, which is expected to take up a similar bill soon. The proposal is supported by Gov. Kevin Stitt, who said “we need prayer in our schools now more than ever before” in a recent video posted on the National School Chaplain Association website. Chaplain proposals have been filed in at least a dozen states, including Iowa and Indiana.

To that end, the National School Chaplain Association has boasted that it is currently certifying scores of chaplains through its own program to fill “hundreds of positions” opening up due to the new laws. The chaplain certification process, which costs $2,599 on top of a $199 application fee, includes an 8-week course led by Oral Roberts University and safety training on active shooters and threat assessment, according to the group’s website. To seek certification from the organization, a candidate must have either a two-year degree and 2,000 hours of ministry experience or 6,000 hours of full-time ministerial experience as an ordained clergy, the website states.

Some Texas school districts, though, have been hesitant to deploy chaplains and voted against the idea.

The National School Chaplain Association, for its part, says that legislation expanding access to chaplains is not some sort of Christian nationalist takeover as some critics allege, but an attempt to give schools access to the same resources as many public and private businesses and even hospitals and first responders.

“This bill will benefit teachers, as well as students and staff, just like chaplains benefit every other sector,” Johnny Davis, chief development officer with the National School Chaplain Association, said in an interview.

Source: Politico

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