School chaplains bill ready for DeSantis

by | Mar 8, 2024

Florida school districts could soon be authorized to allow volunteer chaplains to provide services to students under a bill given final passage by the Senate on Thursday, as one Democrat warned that the Legislature is “chipping away at the separation of church and state.”

Senators voted 28-12 along party lines to approve the measure (HB 931), which the House passed last month. The proposal is ready to go to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Under the bill, school districts and charter schools could craft policies to allow volunteer chaplains to provide “support, services, and programs” to students, if such policies follow certain requirements.

For example, participating school districts would have to describe in their policies the services that volunteer chaplains would provide. Written parental consent would have to be given to the district before students could receive those services, and parents “must be permitted to select a volunteer school chaplain from the list provided by the school district, which must include the chaplain’s religious affiliation, if any.”

The volunteer chaplains would be required to undergo background screenings similar to “noninstructional” school employees, and school districts would have to publish lists of the chaplains and their religious affiliations.

Senate Democrats on Thursday echoed critics of the bill who spoke against it as it moved through the legislative process. For example, some senators said the measure does not include requirements that the chaplains receive training.

“We don’t define who a chaplain is. And as a result, we don’t have any requirements for what the chaplain has to do,” Sen. Lori Berman said during debate about the measure Thursday.

Supporters of the bill have contended that the measure leaves the option open to school districts to call for any training requirements they would want. Senate sponsor Erin Grall said that chaplains are used in other areas of public life.

“It does surprise me about the controversy. Because we have had chaplains in our public institutions for centuries. And they’ve existed long before the formation of the United States. Chaplaincy is something that we all have probably had individual and unique experiences with as well,” Grall said.

Grall also addressed the training issue.

“There’s so many different ways in which somebody can train, so many different ways in which somebody can become qualified to be a chaplain. What we didn’t want to do in this legislation was to be so prescriptive so as to pick the right way to do it,” Grall said.

Sen. Tina Polsky was one of multiple senators who pointed to the separation of church and state in debating against the bill.

“It seems like every year we keep chipping away at the separation of church and state. And I have to tell you, many of you are quite religious,” Polsky argued. “And you use that to guide your voting and your principles and your bill proposals — and that’s fine. But the minute that you try to put your religion upon other people, that’s when it becomes a problem.”

Grall and other supporters of the bill have contended it would pass constitutional muster because it is optional for school districts, and parents, to participate in.

Sen. Danny Burgess said that volunteer chaplains could help students in situations where issues could not be addressed by school counselors.

“I believe that sometimes the issue is with the soul, and not of the mind. And that’s why I believe that this is a good option for our students in this day and age,” Burgess said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which has opposed the bill, decried its passage on Thursday.

“Allowing chaplains to provide counseling and other support services in public schools would violate students’ and families’ religious-freedom rights by exposing all public school students to the risk of chaplains evangelizing them or imposing religion on them throughout their school day,” Kara Gross, the organization’s legislative director, said in a statement.


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