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Chaplain offices have no place in Indiana public schools

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Chaplain offices have no place in Indiana public schools

Feb 26, 2024 | 7:00 am ET
By Chris Daley
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Chaplain offices have no place in Indiana public schools
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A bill moving through the legislature allows chaplains in public schools. (Getty Images)

The Indiana legislature is currently pushing through legislation to allow public and charter schools to establish chaplains’ offices by hiring or recruiting volunteer “school chaplains.”

The idea started off as Senate Bill 50 and passed the Senate. However, once it was clear that the House was not going to take up the bill, the language was shoehorned into House Bill 1137 in a Senate Education and Career Development Committee hearing. At one time, procedural shenanigans of this sort were generally frowned upon but in today’s “anything goes” General Assembly, it breathed new life into the concept.

The ACLU of Indiana opposes the bill because it positions religious leaders – and only religious leaders – as an additional resource for students in violation of the First Amendment’s anti-establishment clause.

Legislators supporting HB 1137 claim the purpose of the bill is to help fill in for overworked and understaffed licensed school counselors. Providing additional support to students is important, but Indiana can do so without violating the constitution. The First Amendment doesn’t allow government entities to prefer religion over non-religion or favor one faith over others. Also, specific to the public-school setting, the U.S. Supreme Court has urged vigilance about possible religious coercion of students. HB 1137 outlines a program that will most likely require schools to violate all three of these principles.

Chaplains are so entwined with religion as to make it impossible to separate them from it. HB 1137 specifically allows school districts to hire or recruit as volunteers only people who have an advanced degree in religious studies or a related field. In striking down a similar program in Texas in 2002, a federal judge found that the program’s reliance only on clergy meant that it “conveyed the message that religion is preferred over non-religion.” Any program established under HB 1137 would suffer the same fate.

And, any faith leader that school officials select will inherently be affiliated with a specific religious denomination and its traditions. Students not affiliated with a school chaplain’s denomination or its tradition can easily feel alienated by a school appointing them to provide “advice, guidance, and support” to the student body.

Community, not classroom

Chaplains play an important role in many institutions in our state but, they should not hold official positions in our public schools because their presence in an official capacity would open up our students to religious coercion. The primary role of chaplains is to provide pastoral or religious counseling to people in spiritual need. That is an important service that can be provided in the community. However, providing a faith leader an official position and office in a public school during instructional hours — specifically because they are a faith leader — is inherently coercive.

It’s no secret that Indiana has a school counselor shortage crisis. In fact, according to the American School Counselor Association, the Hoosier State ranks dead last in student-to-school counselor ratio, at 694-to-1. Legislators are right in wanting to address this crisis; but HB 1137 is the wrong way to do it. Beyond the constitutional violations outlined above, HB 1137 would insert employees or volunteers who have no training in child development or even trauma informed care practice into the school environment. Indiana students need to know that the adults they go to for support have the training and expertise to provide it.

Families and students in Indiana practice a wide variety of faiths, and many are nonreligious. All should feel welcome in our public schools. Freedom of religion means that parents and faith communities—not government officials—have the right to direct their children’s religious education and development. Establishing offices in public schools for “school chaplains” crosses these well-established boundaries.