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Texas lawmakers approve bill to allow school districts to replace counselors with chaplains

A Ten Commandments monument stands outside the Texas Capitol in Austin. (Jana Birchum/Getty Images)
4 min

The Texas House of Representatives Wednesday gave final approval to a bill to allow uncertified chaplains in public schools, including to replace professional counselors, the last step before the measure is signed into law.

The bill, which now goes to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), came in a session of aggressive legislative measures in Texas and several other states aiming to weaken decades of distinction between religion and government. Supporters say they believe the Supreme Court’s ruling last summer in Kennedy v. Bremerton, in favor of a high school football coach who prayed with players, essentially removed any guardrails between them.

At midnight Tuesday, a bill that had passed the Senate requiring a version of the Ten Commandments be hung in every classroom in the state did not secure a House vote in time and died.

Texas bill would require Ten Commandments in public school classrooms

The Senate also passed a bill to allow districts to require schools to set aside time for staff and students to pray and read religious texts, and a second bill to allow public employees to “engage in religious prayer and speech” — modeled after the coach ruling. Those two bills failed to make it out of House committees Wednesday and were not considered likely to resurface this session.

Groups that watch church-state issues say efforts nationwide to fund and empower religion — and, more specifically, a particular type of Christianity — are more plentiful and forceful than they have been in years. Americans United for Separation of Church and State says it is watching 1,600 bills around the country in states such as Louisiana and Missouri. Earlier this year, Idaho and Kentucky signed into law measures that could allow teachers and public school employees to pray in front of and with students while on duty.

“Religious freedom means that parents — not school officials or state legislatures — have the right to direct their children’s religious education. Families should be able to trust that their children will not have a particular religious perspective forced on them while attending our public schools. This bill violates the religious freedom of every student and family in Texas,” said Rachel Laser, President and CEO of Americans United.

Earlier this month the House sponsor of the chaplain bill, Rep. Cole Hefner (R), told a House debate that the legislation wasn’t about pressing religion.

“We have to give schools all the tools; with all we’re experiencing, with mental health problems, other crises, this is just another tool,” he said.

A half-dozen Democratic lawmakers rose to ask Hefner to amend the bill, saying it didn’t provide protection for a diversity of religions, among other things.

Hefner and the majority rejected almost all amendments, including one requiring parental consent and another requiring chaplains to serve students of all faiths and not proselytize.

They also turned down one striking the bill’s requirement that every school district in Texas, within six months, vote up or down whether to have chaplains. The sponsor said it was unnecessarily provocative and divisive at a time when school board members in some places need security due to fierce division over issues that often have a religious component.

Rep. James Talarico (D), who is a seminary student, had proposed adding the requirement that chaplains get an endorsement like chaplains in hospitals and the military. Hefner had initially added that amendment, but the Senate rejected that requirement.

Talarico also proposed requiring parental consent. Hefner and the majority rejected it. Another lawmaker proposed adding that chaplains must serve students of all faiths and not proselytize. Rejected. Another proposed striking the bill’s requirement that every school district in Texas, within six months, vote up or down whether to have chaplains.

On Tuesday, Hefner on the House floor responded to Talarico’s complaint that people with no educational or professional requirements and training could be afforded access to students in public schools.

Texas Rep. Jim Talarico (D) questioned Rep. Cole Hefner (R) about a new bill to allow uncertified chaplains in public schools on May 24. (Video: The Washington Post)

“I trust our school districts to spell out any qualifications they would require,” Hefner said.

Talarico then noted that Hefner and the majority rejected amendments barring chaplains from imposing their beliefs on students and respecting the free exercise of religion.

“Should we encourage infiltration of our schools?” Talarico asked Hefner.

“Here’s what I really think. I think it’s preposterous that members in here will defend acts of — certain inappropriate drag shows in our schools and inappropriate material in our libraries and then have audacity to say this is a problem.”

Americans United for Separation of Church and State said it knows of no other bills that replace guidance counselors with chaplains.