Florida lawmakers are trying to shove untrained religious chaplains in public schools
Volunteer chaplains with no training are no substitute for mental health professionals
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Following in the footsteps of Texas, Iowa, and several other states, Florida is considering legislation that would put untrained Christian chaplains in public schools as a substitute for trained social workers and counselors.
SB 1044 would give public school districts permission to adopt a policy allowing them to bring on “volunteer school chaplains.” Parents would be informed about the religious affiliations of those chaplains and would have to give permission for their children to see them. All potential chaplains would have to pass a background check.
Those caveats are useful—and far better than what Texas passed into law—but the entire bill is clearly another way to shove Christianity into public schools. After all, Christians (unlike more smaller faiths or secular groups) have the infrastructure to ordain chaplains. That said, the bill doesn’t specify what kind of ordination is needed… meaning anyone who calls himself a chaplain would presumably be eligible. There’s no minimum amount of training needed for these chaplains to be working in the schools—which means their services won’t be nearly as useful as they would be if offered by trained professionals.
Why is Republican State Sen. Erin Grall sponsoring a bill like this?
It may have something to do with the lack of qualified workers in the state:
The National Association of School Psychologists says there is one psychologist for every 1,828 Florida students, more than three times more students than the recommended ratio.
But instead of using the state’s budget surplus to train and hire new social workers, though, Florida’s GOP is hell-bent on pushing educators out of the state. In this case, those vacancies may now be filled with untrained adults whose only “qualification” is a religious label.
“I view this as an alternative to mental health counselors. I see this is an alternative for families,” said the bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Erin Grall. She dismissed the argument that chaplains could give students bad advice. “What happens when our children receive the wrong advice from a mental health counselor?”
Trained counselors, just like all professionals, may make mistakes. But their training helps them make fewer mistakes. That’s the point. Grall apparently wants faith-based randos to take the place of experts, with no checks or balances in place for when those adults offer bad advice.
In Texas, where a similar bill has become law, religious chaplains are literally begging districts not to go through with it, because they understand what the lawmakers don’t. They want to see kids thrive, and throwing faith-based services at them isn’t the way to do it. Plus, in Florida, just like everywhere else, kids can already see religious chaplains! All they have to do is go to church.
American Atheists’ Florida Assistant State Director Devon Graham told a local news outlet, “I personally don’t want to see an untrained [chaplain] telling my child, my children, they are unworthy or to stigmatize them.” It’s a fair criticism. After all, how many parents would just make the false assumption that a chaplain is inherently qualified to help their kids?
The Senate version just got approved by the Education Committee. That version removed one section from the original bill that would have forced all school districts to vote on whether or not they wanted a chaplain policy.
The Senate version had critics, though, including one Democrat who is about as knowledgeable as anyone could be on this issue:
Democratic Sen. Rosalind Osgood — who has a master’s degree in divinity, is a former Broward County school board member and served as a chaplain for the Fort Lauderdale Police Department — voted against the bill. She said the idea could create division among parents fighting for or against the policy when education should be the priority.
“It puts school districts in a position that takes their attention away from education,” she said. “Now the school board is focused on chaplaincy instead of education.”
And she warned about the widely different interpretations of religious beliefs even among Christians, such as some Baptist organizations that don’t approve of women being pastors and people who use religion divisively instead of accepting all people.
She’s right, of course. When you introduce religious chaplains in a school, their primary obligation is to their faith, not the students. That means they will advance their personal religious agendas even if that comes at the expense of children’s well-being.
This is the sort of bill you file when you want to serve red meat to a conservative Christian base, not when you actually want to help students thrive. For all the GOP talk of the need for better mental health care—something they say after every school shooting—they’re now advancing a bill that would replace professionals best suited to provide that care with untrained religious people who don’t necessarily know the first thing about the subject.
It ultimately hurts the students who need that help the most.
Incidentally, in Iowa, where a similar bill is being considered, a minister of The Satanic Temple of Iowa, Mortimer Adramelech, told lawmakers that if the bill passed, he was “excited for the opportunities it presents for the Satanic Temple to provide support services and programs to school children in our state… Iowa has several ordained ministers of Satan and we would be happy to engage children.”
There’s nothing in either one of the Florida bills that would prevent a Satanist from registering as a chaplain in any public school district that decides to adopt this policy if this becomes a law.