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More than 100 school chaplains oppose new law allowing them to serve as counselors

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Religious leaders opposing SB 763 say it's "harmful" to public schools and families.

More than 100 Texas chaplains have signed onto a letter protesting a new state law that allows them to serve as counselors in public schools.

The letter released Tuesday urges school board members to reject the public school chaplain program, calling it “that the harmful to our public schools and the students and families they serve.”

Under Senate Bill 763, school boards have to vote whether to bring in hired or volunteer chaplains to “provide support, services, and programs for students.”

Several groups organized the letter, including the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Interfaith Alliance and Texas Impact.

“We are troubled by SB 763 because religious instruction should be left to our houses of worship and religious institutions, not to our government,” said Reverend Jennifer Hawks, ordained Baptist minister and Associate General Counsel with the BJC.

Texas school counselors are troubled too.

Jill Adams, a 16-year school counselor, is president of the Texas School Counselor Association. She said with training in child development, counseling skills, and mental health support, “school counselors are equipped, trained and certified to do just that for students.

“Texas chaplains do not have any credential or certification that would give them the ability to say they’re qualified to support student mental health needs.”

Sheri Allen is a chaplain and Jewish Cantor at Makom Shelanu Congregation in Fort Worth and one of the signatories of the letter.

“As a chaplain myself,” Allen said, “I oppose school districts employing chaplains in place of licensed school counselors. We are not qualified to do that kind of work. Under this new law, school districts could allow chaplains to serve as a student’s first point of contact for mental health, suicide prevention and other behavioral health services.

“Chaplains aren’t trained to do that at all.”

Allen added chaplains lack training in other academic areas as well, including graduation, college and continuing education advice and information.

“As chaplains, we are trained to provide spiritual and emotional support to people that ask for it,” she said.

In the case of children, she said they’re too young to give consent – that's another problem she has with the new law.

For Allen, context matters. She said a chaplain in the appropriate setting is fine. But a school doesn’t provide that.

“Take for instance a kid who might be LGBTQ and not out to their parents,” Allen said. “Their parents say, ‘I want you to talk to this counselor.’ I mean, how are they going to feel safe to talk to a chaplain who might not approve of who they are? They might even do major damage.”

Neither state Sen. Mayes Middleton, R-Galveston, who authored the bill, nor state Rep. Cole Hefner, R-Mt. Pleasant, who wrote the House version, responded to KERA’s request for comment by deadline.

While the law starts Sept. 1, school board members would have to approve the move with a vote before March 2024.

Jill Adams with the Texas School Counselor Association said no school district had contacted her office expressing interest in adding a chaplain.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.