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Florida House signs off on school chaplains

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The Florida House on Thursday passed a measure that would allow school districts to authorize volunteer chaplains to provide “support, services and programs” to students in public schools, amid a debate about whether the bill would be constitutional.

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Under the proposal (HB 931) chaplains would have to meet background screening requirements, and school districts or charter schools would have to get parental consent before students could receive chaplains’ services.

Supporters of the measure say allowing chaplains would add another tool to help schools address children’s mental health issues.

“I think all of us agree that our children are in crisis, we agree that parents need help. We agree that there are a lot of spiritual needs that people could meet if a parent felt it was necessary for their child,” bill sponsor Stan McClain, R-Ocala, said.

Read: House committee approves proposal allowing public and charter schools to allow chaplains on campus

The Republican-controlled House voted 89-25 to pass the measure, with some Democrats questioning whether allowing chaplains in schools would be constitutional.

“Can you point to me, in your bill, what lines and language will prevent religious proselytization and coercion of students as well as other violations of the U.S. Constitution?” Rep. Ashley Gantt, a Miami Democrat who is a lawyer, asked during a floor discussion Wednesday.

“There are none in the bill,” McClain replied.

Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, pointed to the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

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“At the end of the day, when we put into place any type of established religion in a public school setting, it does raise those flags. And I don’t want to put our school districts in a situation where they’re going to be faced with litigation on these issues,” Eskamani said during a debate Thursday.

A House staff analysis of the bill said that, in “general, the Establishment Clause prevents public schools from engaging in activities which could be construed as sponsoring or endorsing religion. Prayer and Bible readings in public schools during school hours are impermissible.”

The ACLU of Florida has argued the bill is unconstitutional.

“Courts have repeatedly ruled that it is unconstitutional for public schools to invite religious leaders onto campus to engage in religious activities, such as prayer and religious counseling, with students,” Kara Gross, legislative director and senior policy counsel for the ACLU of Florida, said in a prepared statement.

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“If passed, this bill will likely create public education environments ripe for religious coercion and indoctrination of students,” Gross added.

School districts and principals that want to allow chaplains would have to meet various requirements. For example, principals would be required to inform parents about the availability of chaplains. Parents would have to be able to choose chaplains from lists provided by school districts, with the lists including “the chaplain’s religious affiliation, if any.”

Critics of the bill have also questioned why the bill would not mandate training or credentials for chaplains.

“Now we are saying that, first, we don’t have to have any qualifications for these chaplains. So any Joe Schmo who says, ‘Hey, I’m a chaplain, I want to go into these schools,’ all they need to do is a background check and claim to be a chaplain without any verification,” Gantt said during debate Thursday.

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Rep. Robin Bartleman, a Weston Democrat who is a former educator, asked Wednesday if parents would be informed about chaplains’ levels of experience.

“Since you’re mandating the information be posted on a website, and this is really important, are you mandating a disclaimer to let them know that these chaplains may or may not have experience or be licensed healthcare professionals?” Bartleman asked.

“The school boards would have the authority to do that if they so choose,” McClain replied.

Rep. Adam Anderson, R-Palm Harbor, argued that faith-based mentors are a valuable part of providing services to young people and families.

“Just like there’s no replacement for a licensed mental health professional or a doctor who can write prescriptions, there’s never going to be a replacement for what a faith-based counselor — a chaplain, a pastor or a rabbi — can add to a child or to a family,” Anderson said.

The measure would need approval from the Senate before it could go to Gov. Ron DeSantis. Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, and Senate bill sponsor Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, said Thursday they think the bill would pass constitutional muster.

“Anytime somebody doesn’t like a bill … the first thing they say is, it’s unconstitutional. That’s their default objection,” Passidomo told reporters.

“I think that it actually is squarely within the Constitution. Not only would parents have to consent to the consultation with a specific chaplain. But there’s also, they can’t prevent any specific chaplain from being a part of the program either based on religion. So, these are the bare minimum guidelines to participate,” Grall said.

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