Will Fort Worth schools hire chaplains? Local tensions mount against new Texas law
Sabrina Ball, a Fort Worth mother of two, will carefully watch her local school board for the next several months. As her children begin a new academic year, her district will have to vote on whether to hire or accept volunteer chaplains into its schools.
The impending vote derives from Senate Bill 763, a law that passed in Texas’ 88th Legislative Session, allowing public schools and open-enrollment charter schools to employ or accept volunteer chaplains to provide behavioral or mental health support alongside school counselors and social workers. Once effective Sept. 1, school boards will have six months to vote on whether to adopt a policy authorizing schools to hire or accept volunteer chaplains. Chaplains are not required to be certified by the State Board of Educator Certification, according to the bill. No school districts that responded to the Fort Worth Report by deadline have immediate plans to put chaplains in schools.
The looming vote is stirring up tension among parents, faith leaders and chaplains in Tarrant County. More than 100 chaplains issued a letter Aug. 22 urging school board members statewide to reject adopting a chaplain policy.
“We believe that a strong public school system is one in which the limited funding for safety and security of students is used to hire the most skilled professionals for those roles. We believe that families, not the government, are entrusted with their children’s spiritual development,” the letter said.
Typically, professional chaplains are required to have a graduate theological degree and be supported by an approved faith organization.
“SB 763 allows a school district to give any employee or volunteer who can pass a background check the title of ‘chaplain.’ This is simply not enough,” the letter said.
The bill was one of the many faith-driven pieces of legislation seen this session along with one that proposed public schools to display the Ten Commandments and another proposed time for students to pray and read the Bible or other religious texts.
Differences between chaplains, counselors
Chaplains offer spiritual guidance and moral support in settings such as hospitals or the military. Rather than preaching messages of one faith, chaplains are supposed to provide nondenominational religious services to serve a variety of faiths or to those who don’t have a specific religious affiliation, according to Advent Health University.
Jeremy Pope is a chaplain in Fort Worth, specializing in spiritual and emotional care in hospital settings. One of Pope’s concerns is when someone calls themselves a chaplain but lacks the qualifications.
“A lot of times, pastors will call themselves chaplains just because they go to the hospital, and that’s not necessarily what a chaplain is,” Pope said. “A chaplain has been through at least one unit of training called Clinical Pastoral Education.”
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) endorsed Pope, and he started his practice seven years ago. He also is board certified through the Association of Professional Chaplains. Hospitals typically require chaplains to become board certified in order to work in that environment, he said. However, Pope said, not all chaplains need to be board certified to work as one.
Pope said he wishes the bill specified whether the chaplain a school would hire or accept as a volunteer needs to have Clinical Pastoral Education, be board certified — or none of the above.
“That opens the door for a pastor that is looking for some extra income or maybe he has retired and he just wants to get back into the field that allows them to get into this role,” Pope said. “I’ve done a lot of different things in my career. I do not have the training to be a school counselor.”
How did Tarrant lawmakers vote?
State Sen. Mayes Middleton, R-Galveston, authored the bill. During an April 5 Senate Education Committee meeting, Middleton said schools “don’t have to hire chaplains under this bill” but “this adds another tool on the table for our students.”
Middleton did not respond to the Report’s request for comment by deadline.
Here’s how Tarrant-area lawmakers voted during the May 23 Senate Session:
State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, voted present.
During the House session, Rep. James Talarico, D-Austin, asked Rep. Cole Hefner,R-Mount Pleasant, if he thought chaplains had the same qualifications as a school counselor.
“I don’t think their qualifications all line up, but I do think they both have important qualifications that contribute to helping our kids and teachers in our schools,” Hefner said. “I trust our school districts to spell out what qualifications they would require and make those decisions.”
During the May 24 session, Talarico also asked Hefner if the bill defined what a chaplain is. Hefner said he believes it does and cites how chaplains serve in hospital and military settings.
“There’s’ a lot of places that they serve. And they have specific training as to not force religion on people, but to be good listeners, good support people,” Hefner said.
LaShanda Lewis is the director of advocacy at Lone Star State School Counselor Association. A majority of school counselors’ work is centered around therapy, grief counseling and informing students of therapy groups, Lewis said.
The bill allows schools to employ a chaplain alongside a counselor or social worker, and Lewis thinks it should always be alongside, not alone.
“Schools cannot function without their school counselors,” Lewis said. “There are constant needs from our students,” Lewis said. “You need that understanding of how school functions.”
Melissa Martin, head of Heritage Classical Academy in Houston, told lawmakers during an April 5 Senate Education Committee meeting that she had access to a chaplain when serving in the United States Air Force and wants students and teachers to have the same opportunity to do so.
“We failed to provide this kind of support to students and teachers. Both of these populations are struggling and we’re missing the mark when we assume that school counselors can meet all the emotional and mental needs with secular counseling,” Martin said.
Tarrant County parents push back
Ball, the Fort Worth mother, has sent her kids to Fort Worth ISD schools for the past 12 years. She is also a representative of Defense of Democracy’s Texas chapter, a public education advocacy group. Ball said she believes the bill is “vague, but overall inappropriate.”
“My children are not going to see the chaplain,” Ball said. “I think it goes against the separation of church and state.”
Ball isn’t alone in voicing her thoughts on the bill. Two parents from Grapevine-Colleyville ISD voiced their concerns on the national level.
Zach Freeman, a father of three in Grapevine, made a TikTok talking about the bill, which amassed over 300,000 views. The video was satirical, portraying a character he calls the “concerned parent in North Texas” who is for the law, he said.
“If the issue that [the law’s] trying to solve is that we need more school counselors, then we should hire more school counselors, rather than expanding the definition of who can fill a counselor role to include people who are not trained and are not certified to be counselors,” Freeman said.
Sravan Krishna, a practicing Hindu in Southlake, told The Washington Post that he planned to move his family out of Texas before school starts in the fall. Krishna told the Report that he and his family have left the state.
Last year, Krishna caught theattention of local news for presenting two posters during a Carroll school board meeting saying “In God We Trust,” but one had the motto written in rainbow-colored font while the other one was written in Arabic. The move was in response to a bill passed by lawmakers in the 87th Legislative Session, which would require elementary, secondary or higher education institutions to display framed posters of the motto if it met certain requirements and was donated.
Carroll school board members declined to accept Krishna’s posters.
“In the beginning, I thought, ‘How can a place like this, one of the wealthiest ZIP codes in the state, be so backward?’” Krishna told The Washington Post when talking about the chaplain bill. “I thought, ‘Oh, they’re just misinformed,’ but from there it never changed. There isn’t much of an uproar, and it’s even welcomed, this forcing of a particular religious view.”
A ‘recipe for disaster’
Lawrence Sager, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Law, specializing in both constitutional law and religion law, said the bill’s vagueness creates a “recipe for disaster” for Texas schools.
“The real picture of this is pretty terrifying,” Sager said. “We’re talking about this highly vulnerable population that’s filled with stresses and strains, and somehow tossing in religious guidance,” Sager said.
The bill does not specify if school boards should be hiring across the religious spectrum, Sager said.
“It creates a situation where a school district could easily offer its students a highly restricted set of services of counseling and other nature, which might be restricted to a very narrow set of religions, which would be a very bad thing,” Sager said.
When that happens, there could be lawsuits against school districts that adopt the policy, he said.
“It’s quite remarkable that the state Legislature is opening this dangerous door without any regard for these concerns,” Sager said. “At a minimum, we can say this is constitutionally careless.”
Chaplains, faith leaders speak out
The American Civil Liberties Union wrote a letter to Texas school districts and charter schools, saying that the bill would lead to “religious proselytization and coercion of students.” The Rev. Erin Walter, executive director of the Texas Unitarian Universalist Justice Ministry, wrote about the bill for ACLU.
Walter is a minister based in Austin, a former public school teacher and also has experience as a chaplain in a YMCA community center.
“I love chaplaincy when it’s done from a place of openness to what the person needs,” Walter said. “I don’t oppose this bill out of opposition to chaplains who do best practice interfaith work. I oppose it because I don’t believe that religion belongs in our public school.”
The Rev. Mary Spradlin, senior pastor at Arlington Heights United Methodist Church, is concerned about the bill because it doesn’t specify if or how children and parents would consent to chaplaincy care in their schools, she said.
“There’s a lot of well-intentioned caring people in this world who are motivated by their religious beliefs to want to reach out in love and concern to their neighbor. But it doesn’t mean that they’re sharing good theology,” Spradlin said.
How will Fort Worth area schools respond?
The Report reached out to the 12 school districts in Fort Worth to hear how they are responding to the bill. Here’s what the school districts said:
Aledo ISD’s spokesperson told the Report that the school district will be “reviewing this policy as well as all policy changes that will be necessitated by new law changes from the legislative session.”
Burleson ISD did not respond with plans to address the bill at time of initial publication.
Castleberry ISD’s spokesperson told the Report that the district’s superintendent has “not indicated whether she plans to respond.”
Crowley ISD’s spokesperson said that the district’s “Policy Review Committee and Board of Trustees are reviewing the new legislation and developing plans for the implementation of SB 763 and other education-related bills passed during the 88th legislative session.”
Eagle Mountain-Saginaw ISD
Eagle Mountain-Saginaw ISD did not respond with plans to address the bill at time of initial publication.
Everman ISD’s spokesperson told the Report that the school board has not made a decision about the bill yet but plans to within the next six months.
Fort Worth ISD
Angélica Ramsey, Fort Worth ISD’s superintendent, told the report that “counseling is not an area where we are experiencing a shortage of personnel.” Ramsey can’t comment on possible future needs of the school, though she said the district does not “have the need at this time to consider that alternative,” in hiring or accepting volunteer chaplains.
Hurst Euless Bedford ISD
HEB ISD’s spokesperson told the Report that the district “happen[s] to have a current staff member that is also a chaplain. HEB ISD has several processes in place to review and implement new policies.”
Keller ISD’s spokesperson told the Report that “At this time, Keller ISD’s Board of Trustees has not yet had discussions regarding SB 763, and agenda items have not yet been scheduled for meetings that far in advance.”
Lake Worth ISD
Lake Worth ISD’s spokesperson told the Report that “A decision has not been made at this time as we are still reviewing our options,” and that the district expects to have a decision by the end of the fall semester.
Northwest ISD’s spokesperson told the Report that the school district “will continue to employ qualified school counselors for school counseling work. We do not have any plans to implement chaplains for school counseling work. We do not currently have a date set for a board vote on the matter but will do so in compliance with the law.”
White Settlement ISD
White Settlement ISD’s spokesperson told the Report that “We have been very fortunate in [White Settlement] ISD to add to our counseling department over the past couple of years. In 2021, our voters approved a Tax Ratification Election that allowed us to add a counseling director as well as two additional counselors at the secondary level. Last year, we partnered with Invicta Services Group to provide five additional counselors and family counseling in [White Settlement] ISD. We also partnered with Communities in Schools to provide two additional social workers. At this time, the board does not have plans to adopt the chaplain policy because there is not a need.”
Marissa Greene is a Report for America corps member, covering faith for the Fort Worth Report. You can contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter at @marissaygreene.
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