A Disturbing Trend: Pushing Religious Chaplains on Public Schools

As Public Schools Week comes to a close, draw your attention to a disturbing trend: across the United States, the push to install religious chaplains in public schools has been growing at an alarming pace.

As of today, legislatures in thirteen states, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Utah have introduced bills to allow religious chaplains to serve as school counselors or volunteers in schools; Texas already has a law in place to allow chaplains in schools since it passed SB 763 in Summer 2023.

Proponents of these types of bills claim that they want to fill a profound gap in the number of school counselors available to students. The American School Counselor Association recommends there be one school counselor per 250 students, and according to data on its website, only two states in the U.S. have an adequate number of counselors in place.

Even under the guise of wanting to provide increased access to in-school counseling and mental health services to students, unqualified, unlicensed religious leaders are not what our children need. Additionally, why is there only one major religion that is pushing for this in the first place?

Let’s be clear: the coordinated attempts to replace school counselors with Christian chaplains is not a good faith attempt to address nationwide shortages in mental health and counseling, but instead a very intentional move to inject Christian dogma into the minds of young students in public schools. This is not only problematic to humanists and atheists, but to adherents of other faiths such as Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as well.

Keep an eye on Texas

To get a sense of how these proposed bills could play out, it’s critical to look to Texas, which passed a law last year to allow chaplains in schools.

In general, critics of these types of bills argue that the criteria to qualify as a “chaplain” for the purposes of counseling students is flimsy. In Texas, the debate ahead of passing SB 763 included such questions, with one opponent to the bill saying it was “akin to an online marriage ordination.”

Those concerns are legitimate, considering the final language in Texas SB 763 says that “a chaplain employed or volunteering under this chapter is not required to be certified by the State Board for Educator Certification.” Chaplains who are hired to administer counseling to students in Texas schools under this law only need to satisfy a criminal background check.

Individual school districts in Texas may impose their own requirements for school chaplains but are not mandated to do so, though they must make a decision by March 1, 2024. They could also, as seen recently in the Katy Independent School District in Texas, decide not to allow chaplains to counsel students.

Opponents of school chaplain bills point out that they could actually do more harm than good. In this Texas Tribune article from last year, Dr. Lindsay Bira, a psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry at UT Health San Antonio who focuses on stress, trauma and anxiety said: “…a chaplain is not trained in how the brain works or what helps it work best. Someone with a religious background could push prayer or other strategies that increase shame.”

The proposed school chaplain bills in other states vary in how they each define “chaplain,” what services can be performed inside the school by a chaplain, and whether parents must be notified or provide permission for their children to be counseled. It is yet to be seen how this could play out across the country.

Why chaplains?

But even as lawmakers across the country place the most-basic parameters in their proposed legislation, beyond what Texas did, the question remains: why chaplains?

The answer is simple: states are opening the doors for—and in many cases, using tax-payer money to pay for—religious indoctrination of students.

One of the biggest proponents of Texas SB 763 was Rocky Malloy, who heads up the National School Chaplain Association. The NSCA describes itself as “a Christian chaplain ministry that provides spiritual care, counseling, and practical community support to Pre-K through 12th grade students, teachers, and their families regardless of age, race, creed, color, sex, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, marital status, or socioeconomic status.”

While SB 763 was moving its way through Texas’ legislative session, Malloy claimed in testimony to the Texas Senate Committee on Education that chaplains “are not working to convert people to religion.”

Yet the NSCA’s parent organization, Mission Generation, which Malloy founded in 1990, makes no secret about its objectives. It includes a three-pronged approach to specifically target education institutions, and provide instruction for chaplains so they can “spread the word of God one on one as well as in group settings.”

As public debate over SB 763 began heating up, the Mission Generation website was pulled down, though it is still accessible on the Internet Archive. The group’s intentions and goals can be found in plain language, which they outline as the following: “We influence those in education until the saving grace of Jesus becomes well-known, and students develop a personal relationship with Him.”

Why this matters

These bills seem to be less about the mental health and well-being of young, impressionable children and more about trying to transform schools into captive audiences to promote Christian nationalism.

Most chaplains simply do not have the training required to adequately address youth mental health challenges and by pretending that they do, these individuals have the potential to do significant harm to vulnerable young people.

The religious right is bringing chaplains into schools to indoctrinate young people into becoming future foot-soldiers of Christian nationalism. If they truly cared about youth mental health, they would not be targeting trans* and queer youth across the country with vicious legislation, banning books, or diverting much-needed funding to religious charter schools, among so many other harmful decisions.

How this push for chaplains in public schools will play out across various state legislatures remains to be seen, but it is critical that we pay attention and reject this blatant push for Christian nationalism under the guise of caring about youth mental health, and continue to advocate for humanist values and respect for the separation of church and state.