Religious chaplains will be permitted to act as school counselors in K-12 schools in Florida.Religious chaplains will be permitted to act as school counselors in K-12 schools in Florida.
Religious chaplains will be permitted to act as school counselors in K-12 schools in Florida.

DeSantis signs bill allowing chaplains in public schools

Published on April 18, 2024 at 2:59 pm

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday signed a measure that will authorize school districts to allow volunteer school chaplains to provide services to students, amid opposition from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Speaking at a high school in Osceola County alongside Republican allies and a local pastor, the governor touted the measure (HB 931) as bolstering existing resources that could help students with their mental health.

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“It used to be, I mean, when education in the United States first started, every school was a religious school. That was just part of it. Public schools were religious schools. There’s been things that have been done over the years that veered away from that original intent,” DeSantis said.

“But the reality is, I think what we’re doing is really restoring the sense of purpose that our founding fathers wanted to see in education,” the governor added.

Under the measure, school districts and charter schools could choose to craft policies allowing chaplains to provide “support, services, and programs” as long as certain requirements are met.

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For example, written parental consent would be required for students to participate and the policies would have to describe the services that would be provided. School districts that participate would have to publish on their web sites lists of the volunteer chaplains and their religious affiliations.

“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 bill says.

The ACLU last month posted a statement on its website saying the organization has “vigorously opposed” efforts to bring chaplains into schools. The group maintains that such efforts are an unconstitutional violation of the separation of church and state.

“Allowing chaplains in public schools violates students’ and families’ right to religious freedom. And, because chaplains are typically not trained or certified to provide educational or counseling services to youth, students are likely to receive inadequate mental health support that, in some cases, may be harmful,” the ACLU said, echoing other critics of the measure who spoke out against it during the legislative session.

The ACLU also urged school boards to reject school chaplain proposals.

But Rep. Stan McClain, an Ocala Republican who sponsored the House bill, said during Thursday’s press event with DeSantis that the measure would be another tool to help students.

“We would sell our kids short if we don’t find a way to help make provision for their spiritual and emotional needs,” McClain said.

DeSantis on Thursday said he expects the measure to be challenged in court. The governor, who said the ACLU “is basically saying it’s okay to discriminate against religious organizations,” pointed to parts of the bill that make chaplain services optional.

“The question isn’t whether we’re going to go to court. I think they are going to go to court,” DeSantis said. “But just think about what the ACLU is saying. This bill, when the chaplains come to campus, the parents have to consent for the student to receive services from there. So, this is purely voluntary. It’s not imposing anything that anyone doesn’t want.”

The new law is set to go into effect in July.

The governor on Thursday also signed a measure (HB 1317) that will allow certain “patriotic organizations” to visit schools.

The groups permitted to visit campuses are the Big Brothers-Big Sisters of America; Boy Scouts of America; Boys & Girls Clubs of America; Civil Air Patrol; Future Farmers of America; Girl Scouts of the United States of America; Little League Baseball, Inc.; the Marine Corps League; and the Naval Sea Cadet Corps.

Representatives of the groups will be permitted to speak with students and distribute information “during school hours and instructional time” to encourage students’ participation.

The representatives would be allowed to “inform students of how the patriotic organization may further the students’ educational interests and civic involvement and better the students’ school and community and themselves.”

The bill also requires that parents be notified of any presentations by organizations and that parents have the option to withhold their student from participation.

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