It’s a wild time to be the State Policy Manager at American Atheists. State legislatures have only been back in session for a few weeks, and I’m already tracking hundreds of bills — some good, most bad for those of us concerned about keeping religion out of government.
One of the most alarming trends I’ve noticed is the barrage of school chaplain policies. So far, I’m aware of almost a dozen bills in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio, and Oklahoma. All of these proposed laws would permit religious chaplains to work or volunteer in public schools as counselors, and not one requires them to have a license.
That’s right: The same politicians who are so fearful of teachers and books indoctrinating our youth are unbothered by overt religious instruction, recruitment, and coercion in schools.
Schools are facing an unprecedented shortage of mental health professionals. Utah is the only state that meets the recommended ratio of 500 students per school psychologist — the national average is more than twice that. In New Mexico, it’s 19,811 to one. With numbers like those, it’s extremely possible chaplains could be a student’s only resource for mental and behavioral health services.
That’s a big problem. Besides trampling on the First Amendment rights of students and their families, chaplains are not professionals with the necessary training to deal with the growing challenges today’s students are facing — from poverty and trauma to suicide prevention and school shootings.
After Texas lawmakers passed the widely controversial “School Chaplaincy Act” last year, a number of opponents have risen up in protest and are urging school boards to reject the policy before the March deadline. Over 100 Texas chaplains from various faiths signed a letter, calling the proposal “spiritual malpractice” and stating, “ we are not qualified for the duties envisioned.”
Despite the backlash, I’m seeing more and more of these dangerous bills get introduced. The cross-country affront on students’ religious freedom is being led by organizations like the National School Chaplain Association, which is “energized to know that [these bills] will pave the way for spiritual care, support, and Biblical guidance for children, teachers, and staff in public schools throughout many states” and promises to “get God into every public school in America.”
That is the actual goal of school chaplain legislation and of the Christian nationalists and Dominionists advocating for it: to install clergy in classrooms, impose a certain kind of Christianity onto young people, and topple one of the great pillars of our democracy — secular public education.
Our policy team at American Atheists is doing all we can to stop them from succeeding. We’re submitting testimony, calling upon our members to speak out, coordinating with partner organizations, and meeting with lawmakers.
But we can’t do any of this without your help. Will you donate $10, $20, or $50 today to support our work?
If, like me, you believe public schools should be safe places for all students — free from religious indoctrination — I really hope you will.
Grateful for your support,
State Policy Manager
PS: It’s not too late to register for our 2024 National Convention in Philadelphia! Join me, the rest of our American Atheists staff, and hundreds of other atheists for four glorious days (March 28-31) of exciting events, trainings, and entertainment!
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