A bill allowing chaplains to serve as counselors in public schools has passed the Texas Legislature despite allegations from critics that it will force religion upon students.
The Texas House passed the legislation on Wednesday in an 84-60 vote, sending the bill to the desk of Governor Greg Abbott to be signed into law. Senate Bill 763 was passed by the Texas Senate on April 25.
“In the 21st century, with social media, [students] need anyone they can talk to,” said Texas Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) in a statement to The Dallas Express.
Bettencourt is a coauthor of the legislation and told The Dallas Express that the chaplains would be able to come from any religious denomination.
The text of the bill says that “a school district or open-enrollment charter school may employ or accept as a volunteer a chaplain to provide support … for students.”
Critics have lambasted the bill for allowing schools to recruit “unqualified” chaplains.
Members of the Texas House delayed the bill last week as some representatives fought to add an amendment that would require the school chaplains to have similar accreditation required by chaplains who work in prisons and the military.
However, that amendment was killed during Friday’s negotiations between the two chambers of the Texas legislature.
SB 763 was authored by Texas Senator Mayes Middleton (R-Galveston), while the House version of the bill was written by state Representative Cole Hefner (R-Mount Pleasant).
Defending his legislation, Hefner said he thinks it is “preposterous” that some of his fellow legislators “would defend the acts of certain inappropriate drag shows in our schools and then have the audacity to say [chaplains in schools] are a problem,” as reported by The Hill.
Hefner also made clear that “schools may choose to do this or not and … can put whatever rules and regulations in place that they see fit,” per The Texas Tribune.
David Donatti, an attorney for the ACLU of Texas, accused Republican politicians of trying to force their religion upon students while “trying to control what students think by banning books and censoring curricula.”
“This bill is part of a coordinated campaign by conservative Christian-based organizations and their legislative champions to force state-sponsored religion into public schools without parental consent,” he said in an ACLU press release. “Replacing well-educated and licensed professionals with uncertified chaplains threatens the safety and education of Texas students.”
Joshua Houston, an attorney and advocacy director for the interfaith organization Texas Impact, argued last week, “This is not what a real chaplaincy program looks like,” per The Texas Tribune.
“We [at Texas Impact] have chaplains as members. We have seminaries as members that train chaplains,” he said. “They all have qualifications. In this bill, they are completely unqualified.”
Houston described the bill’s training requirements as “akin to an online marriage ordination.”
Texas State Board of Education member Julie Pickren argued that chaplains are “trained as counselors.”
Pickren has long supported this legislation and told The Dallas Express that chaplains are “trained for trauma care … [and] trained for PTSD.”
“It’s why we have chaplains in our military and in our prisons and actually just about every organization,” she said. “In Texas, our airports hire full-time chaplains.”
“So, it’s just our children [and] our teachers [who] don’t have access to chaplains,” she continued.
Pickren emphasized to The Dallas Express that under this legislation, chaplains will support teachers as well as students.
She noted that teachers “are experiencing an incredible amount of stress and mental health problems” because of the dysfunction of the public education system.
“Chaplains would be huge for the mental health of our teachers just having a safe person to talk with or pray with or someone just to listen to them,” she said. “It’s a huge benefit to our teachers [and] our children.”
While critics have claimed this bill will be used to “dictate what students worship,” Pickren said the “spiritual care” would be “non-religious.”
“They can pray with people, but chaplains … do not proselytize,” she told The Dallas Express.
SB 763 was one of multiple bills in the Texas Legislature relating to the presence of religion in public schools.
The bill that would have required schools to display the Ten Commandments was killed earlier this week after the Texas House failed to vote on it by the deadline of midnight on Tuesday.