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DeSantis invites lawsuit with new Florida law on school chaplains

Under a new law approved by Florida Republicans, unlicensed school "chaplains" would be given access to vulnerable children. What could possibly go wrong?

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By now, the pattern should be familiar to Gov. Ron DeSantis. In recent years, the Florida Republican, eager to advance his far-right vision and impress his party’s base, has picked a series of legally dubious culture war fights. They invariably lead to lawsuits, which DeSantis’ administration tends to lose.

Keep this in mind when reading about the GOP governor signing into law a measure related to school chaplains in the Sunshine State. The Associated Press reported:

Florida school districts will soon have the option of allowing volunteer chaplains to counsel students under a bill signed Thursday by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who dismissed critics opposed to mixing religion with public education. The only requirements for a chaplain to participate would be passing a background check and having their name and religious affiliation listed on the school website.

Under the new statewide policy, which will take effect on July 1, school chaplains will “provide support, services, and programs to students as assigned by the district school board.”

Florida is not especially unique on this front: As the AP’s report added, there are now “more than a dozen states that have sought to create school chaplain programs,” including Texas, which “became the first under a law passed in 2023.”

Broadly speaking, the idea is rooted in a relatively straightforward argument: As a growing number of students face mental-health challenges, school districts often struggle to hire counselors, either due to financial constraints or because of a shortage of qualified professionals.

Bringing in volunteer chaplains, the argument goes, would help offer schools another way of providing counseling services to students who need a hand.

Of course, this description makes it sound anodyne and harmless. The truth isn’t nearly that simple.

For one thing, one of the most dramatic flaws in Florida’s policy is that there are training requirements for school chaplains. Students would go to these volunteer figures from the faith community, who may or may not have the necessary skills, background, and qualifications to counsel minors in need of mental health care.

In theory, the idea of volunteer chaplains might sound nice. In practice, bringing unlicensed and untrained religious leaders into schools, and giving them access to vulnerable children, is highly problematic, even if everyone involved is well-intentioned.

For another, the constitutional principle of church-state separation still exists.

Public schools are supposed to be religiously neutral. Students can pray voluntarily, but the schools themselves are required not to interfere on matters of faith, leaving the issue to students and the families.

Bringing an official chaplain into a religiously neutral public school raises all kinds of new challenges. What’s to stop that chaplain from proselytizing? How would a chaplain from one faith tradition tend to the needs of diverse students from other faith traditions? Are schools prepared to have small armies of chaplains, one for each religious group — in addition to representatives for secular students who aren’t religious?

What happens when multiple faith leaders from a community volunteer, and officials are expected to pick and choose? Will some religions gets special consideration over others?

Relatedly, are school officials prepared to start discriminating based on whether or not they like a religious group’s beliefs? After Florida Satanic Temple members announced plans to take advantage of the state’s new chaplain program, DeSantis declared yesterday that the group would be ineligible.

But as USA Today noted, the IRS recognizes?the Satanic Temple as a tax-exempt church. If Florida’s Republican administration deliberately excludes the group from the state’s new school chaplain program, that would constitute the kind of discrimination that would likely fail in court.

DeSantis is inviting an avalanche of litigation he’s likely to lose. Watch this space.

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