Texas lawmakers approve allowing public schools to hire chaplains to counsel students

FILE - (AP Photo/Eric Gay) (Eric Gay, Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

AUSTIN, Texas – Texas would allow public schools to use campus safety money to hire chaplains to counsel students under a bill approved this week by state lawmakers and sent to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.

The measure approved on Wednesday, the one-year anniversary of the school shooting in Uvalde that killed 19 students and two teachers, comes amid a push by the Republican-majority Legislature to open the door for more religion in public schools.

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Supporters of the bill say the chaplains can provide critical counseling to help prevent school shootings by addressing student mental health, and address other problems such as drug use.

Local school boards and open-enrollment charter schools would have six months to decide whether to allow chaplains, who could be employees or volunteers.

Critics say the measure violates student religious freedom and allows an entryway for campus evangelizing while exposing students to what may be unconventional or biased counseling methods when dealing with issues such as sexuality, sexual behavior or suicidal thoughts.

“This bill violates the religious freedom of all faiths and Texans of non-faith," said Carisa Lopez, political director for the progressive Texas Freedom Network. “We will never stop fighting the religious right’s agenda to inject their personal beliefs into our schools.”

Local school districts would be allowed to decide whether to allow chaplains, who could be employees or volunteers. The bill would not require chaplains to be trained in student counseling or certified by the state Board of Education, but the author of the measure has said school districts would be allowed to set their own rules.

The bill comes amid a broader push nationally among some conservatives to insert religion into public life, notably public schools, after last year’s U.S Supreme Court ruling in favor of a high school football coach who led prayers with his players in Washington state.

A separate measure that would have required public schools to post the Ten Commandments in every classroom expired without a final vote. The legislative session ends Monday.