Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
Speaking to state lawmakers last month, Rocky Malloy argued that putting unlicensed religious chaplains in schools could prevent youth violence, teen suicide and teacher burnout. And he rejected concerns that school chaplains might use their access to recruit kids to Christ.
Chaplains “are not working to convert people to religion,” Malloy, the head of the National School Chaplain Association, told the Senate Committee on Education. “Chaplains have no other agenda other than to be present in relationships, care for individuals and to make sure everybody on campus is seen and heard.”
What Malloy didn’t mention was that, for decades, he has led another group that promotes school chaplains as a tool for evangelism. Malloy is the founder of Mission Generation, which had been open about its desire to proselytize in schools across the world until recently, when its website was changed to redirect to the school chaplain association’s home page.
The connection, noted this month by activists and Religion News Service, raises new questions about the aim of Senate Bill 763, which would allow local school boards to place unlicensed chaplains alongside school counselors. The bill passed both chambers of the Texas Legislature but was amended in the House to require chaplains to be accredited. However, that provision was removed by a House-Senate conference committee, according to a compromise version of SB 763 released Friday.
The bill is part of a wider push by conservative Christians to insert religion into Texas public life — a campaign that’s already led to heated debates before local school boards and the Legislature. This session, Christian lawmakers have called church-state separation “a false doctrine,” pushed to display the Ten Commandments in classrooms and challenged the Texas Constitution’s prohibitions on public financing of religious organizations, a key plank of the “school choice” movement.
As with other legislation, supporters of the chaplains bill claim it would return morality to Texas schools to better address mass shootings, drug use and other societal ills. School chaplains, Malloy and others argue, would also provide much-needed relief for teachers burdened by low pay, limited resources, ballooning class sizes and ever-looming funding cuts.
But opponents worry that the effort is a thinly veiled attempt by Christian evangelists to recruit children and would exacerbate already simmering tensions at local school boards, which would have the final say on whether to approve chaplaincy programs.
“It does nothing but raise the temperature,” said Christopher Tackett, a Fort Worth-based activist who has for years tracked the influx of religion into Texas public schools.
Worse, opponents say, the bill could deepen the state’s youth mental health crisis by providing students with unproven, lightly supervised and nonscientific counseling approaches by untrained religious activists.
“This is not what a real chaplaincy program looks like,” said Joshua Houston of Texas Impact, an interfaith organization that advocates on behalf of some of the state’s largest religious groups. “We have chaplains as members. We have seminaries as members that train chaplains. They all have qualifications. In this bill, they are completely unqualified.”
“It is akin to an online marriage ordination,” he said of the bill’s current training requirements.
A drug-smuggling ex-pirate
“Would you let a Ex-Pirate, drug-smuggling pirate teach your kindergartner? Apparently, God would…”
So reads the broken-grammar tagline for “Pirate School,” a short documentary-style film that tracks Malloy’s story beginning decades ago, when a friend asked if he wanted to help on a boat — apparently the origin story of his time as a pirate. The plan was to travel to an island, plant 25 pounds of marijuana seed and live like a “hermit,” reading from his “large, cathedral-sized white Bible.”
“I needed to live the experience of the Bible,” Malloy says in the film, which is advertised on the school chaplain association’s website. “Jesus chose people of the sea.”
According to that website, Malloy was living in Mexico when he was sentenced to life in prison for “conspiracy to over through the national government and international drug trafficking in a misguided attempt to help indigenous people” who were being persecuted for their religion. After 72 hours in prison — which Malloy notes is the same time it took Jesus to resurrect — he says he was freed by divine intervention, a sign that he had a “license from God.”
He says he spent the next few years traveling around Central America before settling along the Honduras border, where he preached and taught “the dynamics of construction” to Nicaraguan Contras, the right-wing, CIA-backed rebels who fought the leftist government in one of the cold war’s bloody proxy fights.
The violence, Malloy said in an email exchange with The Texas Tribune, made him want “to help children live better lives” and learn “the impact of loving, spiritual care.”
Eventually, he had an idea: dramatically increase his outreach to children by gaining access to public schools.
“The largest network in any country was the school system,” he said in an interview with Risen Magazine, a California-based Christian publication.“When you add all the parents and teachers, you’re talking about around 50% of the country. So our program has the potential to impact half the population of an entire nation. It would have taken me many lifetimes to build enough churches and Bible schools to do the same thing.”
Thus was born Mission Generation, which Malloy says started in the 1990s with 44 students in Bolivia before expanding across South America. In 2021, he moved his family to the Houston area on a mission to “give school-aged children the tools they need to make quality life decisions based on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” according to the school chaplain association website.
In an email, he pushed back against concerns about chaplains in schools.
“Many prominent publications have been unkind to the U.S. school chaplaincy program, ignoring the success of school chaplaincy in other industrialized nations,” he wrote. “The results are breathtaking, with up to 80% reduction in teen pregnancy, up to 37% increase in high school graduation, and zero suicide.”
But Mission Generation’s promotional materials, social media and previous website show that evangelism also has been a goal.
Archived versions of the group’s website — which now sends viewers to the chaplain association’s homepage — bragged about creating a “viable approach” to getting into public schools to “influence those in education until the saving grace of Jesus becomes well-known, and students develop a personal relationship with him,” Religion News Service reported.
And, in a 2022 interview with the far-right True Texas Project, Malloy called “secularism” its own religion and said publicly funded school chaplains could provide much-needed “absolute truth” at a time of increasing support for transgender rights.
“Right now, it’s all relative [truth],” he said. “They get to define what truth is. Right now, there’s a big discussion like, ‘what is a woman?’ Just a couple years ago, that was pretty straightforward.”
Later in that interview, Malloy dismissed potential church-state separation concerns about school chaplains, saying they “represent God, not religion.” And he claimed the U.S. Constitution's establishment clause was meant to protect religion from the government, not vice versa. The claim is popular among adherents of Christian nationalism, which claims that U.S. institutions and laws should favor Christianity because the country’s founding was ordained by God.
Ties to key figures in public education
Malloy is allied with top figures in Texas public education.
Weeks before she was elected to the State Board of Education last fall, Republican Julie Pickren advocated for school chaplains as one way to put God in classrooms.
Pickren’s comments came in a speech to the school chaplain association — where she and her husband are board members — that was posted on Mission Generation’s Instagram account until the Tribune reached out to her and Malloy for comment last week.
Pickren — who also testified in favor of the chaplains bill at the Capitol — did not answer a list of questions from the Tribune, including whether she agrees with Mission Generation’s evangelism goals or how she became involved with the chaplain association or Malloy.
Instead, she provided a statement via email: “Neither NSCA nor Mission Generation have donated to my campaign. The board position is a volunteer position. Proselytizing is a prohibited activity by chaplains in United States.”
The SBOE, a 15-member elected board that sets curriculum standards for the state, moved further to the right in last year’s elections, when several Republicans, including Pickren, won seats campaigning against critical race theory. Conservatives use the term broadly to describe what they see as indoctrination via lessons that discuss the history of race and racism in America.
The concept, however, is a college-level discipline that examines why racism continues in American law and culture. It is not taught in elementary or secondary schools in Texas.
Pickren was also involved with a new organization looking to provide alternative training to “woke” instruction offered to school board members, she told a Dallas-area publication. She ran for the SBOE after losing reelection to the Alvin Independent School District board of trustees after it was reported that she traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend the Jan. 6, 2021, rally that preceded the attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“A chaplain is not trained in how the brain works”
In hearings at the Texas Capitol, supporters of the chaplains bill said successful chaplaincy programs in other public sectors, including the U.S. military and in Texas prisons, could be replicated in schools.
But Houston, with Texas Impact, pushed back on those claims. For one, he noted, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s chaplaincy program has for years dealt with questions about religious fairness and discrimination, notably in a U.S. Supreme Court case brought by an inmate who was denied access to a Buddhist chaplain in the state death chamber.
Moreover, Houston said, there are vast differences in the training required to be a prison chaplain and the almost nonexistent standards set forth in the chaplains bill.
“Schoolchildren in Texas aren’t going to be provided the same protections as we give to Texas prisoners,” he said of the bill.
Mental health experts similarly oppose the idea, arguing that religious-based counseling can be damaging to developing brains because it often focuses on “sin” and “moral failings,” rather than diagnosable and treatable issues. Such approaches, experts say, can increase feelings of shame and isolation for common childhood problems, including ADHD and anxiety.
“Spirituality is a predictor of well-being and resiliency, and a chaplain can be a source of development of that in young people,” said Dr. Lindsay Bira, a psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry at UT Health San Antonio who focuses on stress, trauma and anxiety.
But, Bira added, “a chaplain is not trained in how the brain works or what helps it work best. Someone with a religious background could push prayer or other strategies that increase shame. And if those don’t work, the child is going to feel like their relationship with God is broken, and that they’re a broken and damaged person as a result.”
Matthew Gutierrez, superintendent of the Seguin Independent School District, said he understands lawmakers are looking for ways to balance student needs with a shortage of counselors. It would be better, he said, if the state helped increase the number of available counselors.
“I would like to see an investment made in counselor preparation programs,” he said. “We are going through a mental health crisis. Chaplains do not have the same level of experience and training.”
Others remain concerned about the potential consequences of allowing religious figures into schools amid already intense debates over parental rights and curricula that promote “Judeo-Christian” values while limiting teaching on LGBTQ people and America’s history of racism. Some fear the chaplains bill, along with the likely passage of the Ten Commandments legislation, would add to the acrimony over religion that’s already gripping some local school boards.
“We have seen a systematic push by certain groups to push the boundaries and erode the separations of church and state,” said Tackett, the Fort Worth activist. “And this is all part of a broader Christian nationalist movement that’s moving into education and government.”
In 2021, Texas lawmakers passed legislation that required donated “In God We Trust” signs to be placed in public classrooms. A North Texas school district later rejected signs that were written in Arabic while accepting English-language versions that were donated by Patriot Mobile, a Grapevine-based conservative cellphone company that has funded numerous Christian nationalist campaigns in the state, including anti-LGBTQ school board candidates.
And, emboldened by a series of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions and growing acceptance of Christian nationalism on the right, Christian groups have openly discussed using Texas classrooms as a model and vehicle for a “restoration of faith” in an increasingly secular America.
Some Christian lawmakers in Texas are pushing back. This session, Rep. James Talarico, a Round Rock Democrat and current Presbyterian seminarian, has railed against the infusion of religion in public life, calling such ideas “offensive” and “idolatrous.”
Talarico, who was on the conference committee but was the only one of 10 members who did not sign the report on the final version of the chaplains bill, said in an earlier interview that the legislation needed better guardrails and training requirements. Otherwise, he said, “it’s a Trojan horse to allow unqualified religious fanatics to enter our school and indoctrinate our kids.”
He voiced similar concerns as the bill made its way through the Legislature and as Malloy assured lawmakers that chaplains’ “sole responsibility is a child and a teacher’s well-being.”
After the bill passed the House, Malloy sent a thankful email to supporters: “Texas is leading the nation putting faith and prayer back in school through chaplains!”
Tickets are on sale now for the 2023 Texas Tribune Festival, happening in downtown Austin on Sept. 21-23. Get your TribFest tickets by May 31 and save big!