(RNS) — Texas’ Republican-dominated legislature is working its way through a slate of bills aimed at increasing religion’s presence in the state’s public schools, drawing criticism from Democrats, clergy and activists who say the proposals violate the separation of church and state and are emblematic of Christian nationalism.
The controversy revolves around three bills: One mandates the display of the Ten Commandments in public schools; another allows school districts to require local campuses to set aside time for staff and students to pray and read religious texts; and a third allows administrators to furnish schools with chaplains in addition to existing counselors.
The state senate passed the first two bills last Thursday (April 20), and the proposal involving chaplains is expected to come up for a vote this week. Lawmakers have yet to vote on companion bills in the Texas House of Representatives.
Leading the charge in the state senate are Sen. Phil King, the lead author on the Ten Commandments bill and co-author on the Scripture-reading proposal, and Sen. Mayes Middleton, who is listed as an author or co-author on all three bills. Both are first-year senators after serving in the Texas House.
In his initial statement of intent accompanying the Ten Commandments bill, King insisted the Bible’s moral code would remind students of the “fundamental foundation of American and Texas law.” He also frames the bill as a response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision last June that backed a public high school football coach who prayed on the field after games, arguing his actions were protected by the Constitution.
During debate over Middleton’s chaplains bill on Monday, Sen. Nathan Johnson, a Democrat, was one of several lawmakers who expressed concerns. He noted that while the amended bill did not conscript the faith of a chaplain, the positions are likely to be filled by Christians.
“I still have great concern that we are continuing to break down this wall the framers of our Constitution insisted on having between church and state,” Johnson said.
In response, Middleton dismissed the separation of church and state as “not a real doctrine” — an argument long popular among purveyors of Christian nationalism.
“It’s a pretty real doctrine to some of us,” Johnson fired back.
Neither King nor Middleton agreed to be interviewed about the bills, although Middleton sent a statement celebrating the passage of the prayer proposal.
“Our founders certainly never intended separation of God from government or schools, despite the lefts’ attempts to mislead people on this fact,” read the statement. It went on to insist that pastors were among those who have “asked that prayer be put back in our public schools.”
But Cantor Sheri Allen, a hospital and hospice chaplain and co-founder of the Jewish congregation Makom Shelanu in Fort Worth, vehemently opposed all three bills. She took particular umbrage at Middleton’s bill allowing schools to hire chaplains and potentially pay them with public funds. Although the legislation has been amended from its initial proposal, which would have allowed schools to replace school counselors with chaplains, Allen expressed concern that the bill does not require chaplains to be certified by the State Board for Educator Certification.
“As a chaplain, I’m the first to admit, I am not qualified to play the role of the school counselor,” Allen told Religion News Service in an interview.
Allen argued the three bills amount to a “blatant violation of the separation of church and state” and appear to privilege Christians. The Ten Commandments bill requires the text, taken from the King James Version of the Bible, to appear on a poster at least 16-by-20 inches and legible “to a person with average vision from anywhere in the classroom.”
The King James Version of the Bible is rejected by many Christians — not to mention Jews, as Allen noted.
”I read and I chant the Ten Commandments in Hebrew — the original language — every year,” said Allen, who pointed out that Jewish traditions typically don’t number the edicts the same way as Christians. (Christians, in turn, have multiple ways of numbering the Ten Commandments that vary by tradition.)
The bill would effectively “endorse Protestant Christianity,” argued Allen, who lives in Sen. King’s district and has spoken to him on the phone about legislation in the past.
David Donatti, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said he expected all of the bills to face swift legal challenges if they are signed into law.
“Each of them is differently unconstitutional in addition to sharing some unconstitutionality,” he told RNS.
Donatti pointed out that the counselors bill does not define chaplain and argued the Ten Commandments bill in particular was likely to be seen as running afoul of existing precedent regarding the separation of church and state. In addition to privileging a specific religious text, he noted it also potentially puts public school teachers in a position to have to explain to young students the meaning of Biblical commandments such as “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant …”
“Freedom of religion protects all of us and all of our abilities to believe and to think freely, and this bill is just a flagrant violation of that,” he said.
Donatti also challenged the idea that the bills related to chaplains and reading religious texts are religiously neutral, noting public schools will likely struggle to cater to all faiths adequately.
“We have not financed our schools in a way to make it possible to have truly non-sectarian, religiously pluralistic moments of meditation,” he said. “In practice, I think what’s going to happen is you’re going to have a particular religious tradition very well represented, while others are not very well represented.”
Americans United for Separation of Church and State Vice President of Strategic Communications Andrew Seidel was among those who have spoken out against the bills, telling the Jewish Daily Forward they are “very clearly an attempt to codify white Christian nationalism into the Texas law.”
Carisa Lopez, political director of the liberal-leaning Texas Freedom Network, said similar bills were occasionally introduced in the past legislative sessions, only to fall flat. But in the current political climate — one where religious conservatives across the country have fused religious fervor with a sustained criticism of public schools — such proposals are coming before the legislature more often, and with increasing success.
“In the past, it’s kind of been lawmakers more on the fringe,” she said. “Now we’re actually seeing them gain some momentum.”
Last year, state Republicans successfully passed a law mandating schools display “In God We Trust” posters that were donated to the school. Detractors decried the law as Christian nationalism, and activists tried to find ways to frustrate supporters of the law. In one North Texas school district, an activist donated signs with “In God We Trust” written in Arabic or superimposed over a rainbow background, but the school district rejected the signs, insisting they already had enough.
(This story was was reported with support from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation.)