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As volunteer school chaplaincy bill goes into effect, possibility of legal action intensifies

Similar legislation has been filed in 14 other states and enacted in Texas and Louisiana, in addition to Florida
Sebastian Duda
Similar legislation has been filed in 14 other states and enacted in Texas and Louisiana, in addition to Florida

A new Florida law that lets school districts open their doors to volunteer chaplains went into effect at the start of the month. But opponents have concerns about how those volunteers will be vetted, and how the rights of students and their families will be protected.

Under the measure, school districts and charter schools could choose to allow chaplains to provide support, services and programs to their students as long as certain requirements are met: Parents must provide written consent for their kids to participate and schools would have to publish lists of the volunteer chaplains and their religious affiliations. But some opponents, like Ryan Jayne with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, worry the program could become a barrier to getting kids the help they need.

He acknowledges that some volunteer pastors will recognize when it’s time to refer students to someone with more training to help them.

“…but there’s others who, the only tool in their toolkit is pushing their personal religious beliefs.”

Similar legislation has been filed in 14 other states and Jayne says it’s been enacted in Texas and Louisiana in addition to Florida. He says his organization is watching the programs closely. If they learn of a chaplain promoting religion to students in a Florida public school…

“…we will be immediately reaching out to the school districts. We always try to resolve things without litigation, so the first step for us will be to talk to the school district and try to get them to correct things without having to file a lawsuit. But if we hear of a violation, and we can’t work it out with the school district, we absolutely will start drafting a lawsuit.”

Jayne says he wouldn’t be surprised if the legislation leads to lawsuits from other groups as well. For example…

“There certainly will be Satanists who apply for programs in Florida to become chaplains," he said.

The Satanic Temple did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But they addressed a similar measure at the Utah legislature, saying they looked forward to getting involved. The bill failed. Here’s Jayne again:

“That will absolutely open school districts to a legal challenge, so that’s another potential pitfall school districts could fall into," he said. "If they’re going to open a chaplain program, they need to open it to everybody, including religions that they may not like so much.”

And Governor Ron DeSantis seems to agree lawsuits are likely. When he signed the bill in April, he said he expected the measure to be challenged in court. But he says he doesn’t think concerns about a violation of church and state are valid. He pointed to parts of the bill that make chaplain services optional.

“This bill, when the chaplains come to campus, the parents have to consent for the student to receive services from there," he said. "So, this is purely voluntary. It’s not imposing anything that anyone doesn’t want. The ACLU is basically saying it’s okay to discriminate against religious organizations. They think the church should be a second-class citizen.”

No one has announced a lawsuit against the bill – yet.

Copyright 2024 WFSU

Margie Menzel