What is a public school chaplain? Texas school children may soon find out.
In 2023, the Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 763, which gives public school districts the option to hire religiously affiliated chaplains. However, the bill provides no definition, job qualifications, program standards, or guidelines. They might be paid to replace school counselors, or districts can use volunteers for practically any “support, services, and programs.”
While school districts have a choice as to whether to use school chaplains, the bill requires every one of Texas 1,192 school boards to take a record vote on the matter. In other words, school boards cannot simply “take a pass” on the question of employing chaplains: they must either affirm or reject the practice.
The timeline in which school districts have to decide is short. SB 763 takes effect on September 1, 2023. Within six months—by March 1, 2024—all 1,192 school boards by law must have taken a record vote on whether to employ chaplains. Many school boards hold their elections in May.
Should a school board decide to adopt a public school chaplain program, they will have to create policies and parameters for that program — more or less from scratch. There is no other public school system in the United States as a model. SB 763 provides very little guidance to school boards. The bill contains no requirements as to qualifications or oversight for chaplains, nor does it set out a clear, authoritative description of chaplain roles and responsibilities.
While the military, hospitals, and prisons have regulations and code of ethics, those parameters are very specific to those unique contexts. Public school children and their families are not soldiers stationed overseas, hospitalized, or incarcerated. It is insulting to parents and trampling parental rights to suggest that their children cannot otherwise access the religious services of their choice in the community.
Texas Impact is mobilizing our membership to urge school boards in Texas to decline to adopt chaplain programs. We also are assembling resources that can help school boards learn about what a professional chaplain program looks like in contexts such as the military, hospitals, and prisons.
Although we believe school boards should reject the notion of school chaplains completely, we also believe that some school boards will adopt chaplain programs because of public pressure generated by political interests and privately operated vendors that operate online “chaplain training” programs. Therefore, school boards need information and resources to help them understand what a professional chaplaincy program actually is.
If you are interested in defending the religious freedom that James Madison intended for our public schools, then sign up to be a Public School Defender. We also have one-pagers to help you talk to your school board about SB 763, and what qualified, professional school counselors do in public schools. We’ll be adding one- pagers from various seminaries, chaplain associations, and denominational endorsing organizations.
Editor’s Note: This essay was first published by Texas Impact.
Joshua Houston is the Advocacy Director at Texas Impact. He is an attorney and registered lobbyist from Austin, Texas where he attends the First Baptist Church.