(RNS) — More than 100 chaplains signed a letter urging local Texas school boards to vote against putting chaplains in public schools, calling efforts to enlist religious counselors in public classrooms “harmful” to students and families.
The letter comes just days before a bill allowing public schools to hire school chaplains becomes law in Texas, the first state in the country to pass such a measure. The legislation, which had been pushed by activists associated with Christian nationalism, gives the state’s nearly 1,200 school boards until March 1 of next year to vote on whether to employ chaplains.
The letter was organized by the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and Interfaith Alliance as well as local advocacy group Texas Impact.
The chaplains who signed the letter, released Tuesday (Aug. 22), bemoaned the lack of standards for potential school chaplains aside from background checks, contrasting it with the extensive training required for health care and military chaplains.
“Because of our training and experience, we know that chaplains are not a replacement for school counselors or safety measures in our public schools, and we urge you to reject this flawed policy option: It is harmful to our public schools and the students and families they serve,” the letter read.
While chaplains who operate in multi-faith environments are generally barred from proselytizing, the Texas bill, SB 763, outlined no such condition, leaving each school district to answer the question on its own.
“There is no requirement in this law that the chaplains refrain from proselytizing while at schools or that they serve students from different religious backgrounds,” reads the letter.
Signers of the letter are members of an array of Christian denominations, including the Presbyterian Church (USA), United Methodist Church, Disciples of Christ and Seventh-day Adventist. Some are part of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Several other signers identified as Jewish, Buddhist or Unitarian Universalist.
“Texas Impact’s member faith traditions recognize the unique value of chaplains in some of life’s most challenging situations, and that’s why they insist on rigorous training and oversight of chaplains under their commission,” the Rev. Franz Schemmel, Texas Impact board president and pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church in Weatherford, said in a press release.
Last month, another letter sent to school boards by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Texas, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Freedom From Religion Foundation raised similar concerns about the bill, which they called unconstitutional.
Besides leading to “religious proselytization and coercion of students,” the July letter charged, chaplains “are generally affiliated with specific religious denominations and traditions. In deciding which chaplains to hire or accept as volunteers, schools will inherently give preference to particular denominations, violating the ‘clearest command’ of the Establishment Clause: ‘(O)ne religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another.’”
As SB 763 made its way through the Texas Legislature in May, state Rep. James Talarico, a Presbyterian-minister-in-training, repeatedly challenged the bill and linked it to Christian nationalism. He also expressed concern about the bill’s champions: the National School Chaplain Association, an arm of a Christian missionary organization that has previously expressed a desire to convert students and school officials to Christianity.
Julie Pickren, a member of the NSCA’s board who was elected to the Texas State Board of Education last November, appeared in a video on social media, since deleted, in which she celebrated the idea of chaplains proselytizing to school children.
“There are children who need chaplains. For the pastors in here, you already know: We have a whole generation of children that have never stepped foot one day inside of a church,” Pickren said in the video.