Unlicensed, volunteer chaplains allowed in Utah’s public schools under new bill

‘I don’t want someone who professes their loyalty to Satan in our schools,’ Rep. Kera Birkeland said during a House Education Committee hearing.

Unlicensed, volunteer religious chaplains would be allowed to serve in Utah’s public schools under a bill advanced by a Utah House committee on Tuesday afternoon. But critics worry allowing religion to have a role in public education could be unconstitutional and harm students.

HB514 from Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, requires local school boards to inform the State Board of Education whether they are interested in using volunteer chaplains by Sept. 30, 2024. Local boards must also hold a vote on whether they will allow chaplains by Sept. 30. 2025.

It would be up to individual local boards to set requirements and guidelines for school chaplains, including qualifications, duties, parental consent and oversight.

Stratton says recent Supreme Court rulings allowing religion to increasingly intersect with the secular world is one of the motivations for his bill.

“It’s given us an opportunity to have a discussion that has been discouraged for the last 50 to 60 years. This allows us to look at what’s going to be helpful for teachers, parents, professionals and students,” Stratton told the House Education Committee on Tuesday.

Stratton’s bill appears similar to a measure passed by Texas lawmakers last year. So far in 2024, legislation that shares much of the same language as Stratton’s has been introduced in Indiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas and Ohio.

Critics worry that Stratton’s proposal allows religious groups to proselytize to students. The bill does not prohibit volunteer chaplains from evangelizing in schools, as those policies would be left to individual school boards.

Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, warns that HB514 would lead to an unconstitutional intrusion by religion into the educational system.

“Authorizing religious chaplains in public schools would violate the religious freedom of students,” Laser said in an email to The Tribune. “Families should be able to trust that public schools are welcoming and inclusive of all students and won’t force a particular religious perspective on their children. Legislators should instead ensure students have access to certified school counselors who are trained to help all students.”

“Public schools are not Sunday schools,” Laser added.

Stratton’s bill specifies any services offered by a chaplain cannot be mandatory for students or employees. Ellie Menlove, Policy Council for ACLU Utah, said that may not happen in practice.

“We recognize that student participation is voluntary under the bill, but we worry that allowing chaplains to serve in official positions in schools creates an inherently coercive context for students regardless of the intent,” Menlove said.

Sara Jones of the Utah Education Association worried the legislation could allow schools to eliminate salaried school counselors or psychologists and shift those duties to volunteer chaplains.

“Nothing in the bill prohibits a chaplain from doing the job of a school counselor or prohibits the LEA (local education authority) from potentially supplanting the role of a school counselor in lieu of a volunteer chaplain,” Jones said. “There’s nothing that ensures that if they do provide counseling, they need some kind of standard of treatment. If there are mental health concerns in their process of counseling, nothing requires minimal professional qualifications and accreditation licensed by the state.”

Stratton would not specify whether his bill intended to allow only chaplains from Christian religions to serve in Utah schools. Potentially, the legislation could open the door for other religious sects. One group eagerly eyeing the opportunity to get involved in Utah’s schools is the Massachusetts-based Satanic Temple.

“If this bill is enacted, it would create an unprecedented opportunity for our ministers of Satan to have a permanent presence in Utah’s public schools,” Rachel Chambliss, executive director of operations for The Satanic Temple, told the committee. “While I would strongly prefer that Utah and other states do not enact bills that mingle religion with state functions, I’m enthusiastic about the possibility of our satanic clergy contributing to the educational and emotional development of Utah’s youth.”

The Satanic Temple’s potential involvement prompted Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, to beseech Stratton to find a way to block their participation.

“I’ll be blunt,” Birkeland said during the committee hearing, “I don’t want someone who professes their loyalty to Satan in our schools, and I would like to make sure you’re going to work on ensuring that can’t happen.”

The non-theistic organization, which is not affiliated with the Church of Satan and does not believe in the existence of Satan, lists a Utah congregation on its website. They already have a robust ministerial program, including at the United States Naval Academy. Co-founder Lucien Greaves said that proposals like Stratton’s are part of a larger issue of lawmakers proposing unconstitutional laws.

“We have these lawmakers in public office — they don’t understand what the Constitution is. They don’t understand how the law works. These things are not inconsequential things,” Greaves said. “These are things asking for a complete overhaul of our understanding of democracy and what the Constitution means. This is just a crash course with litigation that’s going to cost taxpayers a good deal of money, and these assholes aren’t going to have to pay a dime. It just makes me sick.”

Aside from the potential constitutional issues, Stratton’s bill may conflict with existing state law and another proposed bill working its way through the 2024 session. Current Utah law prohibits school officials from using their position to “endorse, promote, or disparage” religious or non-religious viewpoints. HB303 from Rep. Jeff Stenquist, R-Draper, expands on that idea by blocking education officials from inviting or suggesting students reconsider or change their religious views.

Rep. Neil Walter, R-St. George, argued that not promoting religion while allowing chaplains in schools are not mutually exclusive ideas.

“I think we can balance those two things,” he said. “I think you can balance the requirements of not advocating a particular religious belief while still supporting individuals who choose to have, of their own accord, support from an individual in this capacity as a chaplain.”

The bill was approved along party lines. All 10 Republicans on the committee voted in favor, while the two Democrats voted against the proposal. It now moves to the full House.

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