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Utah House OKs bill allowing chaplains in schools. Would it violate separation of church and state?

Should bill pass, Satanic Temple director says ‘ministers of Satan are eager’ to participate

By Katie McKellar - Utah News Dispatch | Feb 25, 2024

Spenser Heaps, Utah News Dispatch

The Capitol rotunda is pictured on the first day of the legislative session in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024.

Another bill that could open the door to religion in Utah schools is making its way through the Utah Legislature.

The Utah House on Friday voted 56-13 to pass HB514, a bill that would give school districts the option to allow volunteer chaplains in their schools to help provide emotional and spiritual support to children.

The bill now goes to the Senate. Lawmakers have one week before the 2024 session concludes before midnight on March 1.

If districts opt in, the bill would require them to develop policies and requirements for school chaplains. The volunteer chaplains would need to pass background check and training requirements set by the district, the Utah State Board of Education and state law.

HB514 also states any student or school employee participation with a chaplain must be voluntary.

In the bill's first legislative committee hearing earlier this week, the bill's sponsor, Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, said chaplains have played a "very critical and integral role" throughout the U.S.'s history.

He noted they already provide services in various ways, including for the Utah National Guard, and he wants to lay out a process if school districts would also like to "draw upon this tradition."

But Democrats pushed back against the bill, worried it would leave school districts vulnerable to constitutional violations.

Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Sandy, said he has "significant concerns" with the bill, and that depending on how school districts try to set policies while also bringing chaplains into their schools, it could violate the Utah Constitution for using public money for religious exercise.

"What we're doing here is putting (school districts) in an extremely precarious position without providing anything to back them up," Stoddard said. If they implement a volunteer chaplain program incorrectly, "then they'll have to defend themselves in court in a lawsuit they're likely going to lose."

Stratton and other Republicans on the House floor argued schools can use all the help they can get to provide support to students -- and they stressed it would be an optional program that would be open to various denominations.

Would bill open door to The Satanic Temple?

The bill's public hearing in front of the House Education Committee on Tuesday laid bare some of the issues the bill could lead to.

Rachel Chambliss, executive director of operations for The Satanic Temple, said if the bill passes, it would "create an unprecedented opportunity for our ministers of Satan to have a permanent presence in Utah's public schools.

"While I would strongly prefer that Utah and other states do not enact bills that mingle religion with state functions, I can personally attest to the fact that The Satanic Temple -- committed to the principles of equal religious representation and community service -- is ready to embrace this new potential role within Utah's communities," Chambliss said.

"I'm enthusiastic about the possibility of our Satanic clergy contributing to the educational and emotional development of Utah's youth," she continued, "and I know that our ministers of Satan are eager to take an active role in enriching Utah's educational landscape."

On its website, The Satanic Temple identifies itself as "the primary religious Satanic organization in the world with congregations internationally, and a number of high-profile public campaigns designed to preserve and advance secularism and individual liberties."

After Chambliss' comments, Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, asked Stratton if he could make it clear in his bill that chaplains from The Satanic Temple would not be permitted in Utah schools.

"I'll be blunt, I don't want someone who professes their loyalty to Satan in our schools, and I would like to make sure that you're going to work on ensuring that that can't happen," Birkeland said.

After the committee, Birkeland posted on X she has "no problem with chaplains and no problem with religions different than mine. But I draw the line with satan. Not today, Satan!"

Stratton's bill would leave it up to school districts to set their own policies, but if they set rules that pick and choose what denominations could or could not participate in a volunteer chaplain program, it could run into questions of constitutionality.

On the House floor Friday, Stoddard pointed to Chambliss' comments while arguing that though the intent of the bill may be nondenominational, "but you could have somebody show up" perhaps from The Satanic Temple, "and we get into some real sticky constitutional territory here."

Stoddard also noted other states that have allowed chaplains in schools "have used them to supplant high school guidance counselors," who are specifically trained to be in school settings.

Rep. Jefferson Burton, R-Salem, argued in favor of the bill, predicting that "when the Church of Satan tries to become a qualified chaplain, I guarantee you there's not an accrediting body out there that's going to recognize that."

The Satanic Temple website states that while it is confused with the Church of Satan "with unfortunate regularity," the two are not affiliated.

Would chaplains replace school counselors?

Burton said chaplains "cannot pose" as guidance counselors, but "what they do, though, is they bring a listening ear into schools." He said more and more major companies are hiring chaplains today, not to "proselytize any particular religion," but if they do "they get the boot."

"They're made to be completely nondenominational, and more than anything what they do is they listen," Burton said. "They help people with good conduct and good behavior."

Burton said chaplains are needed in schools to "help frayed nerves when there have been tragedies in schools."

"Anything we can do to help our children to overcome some of the violence we're seeing in our schools, this is a good way to do it," he said. "They are an additional resource."

In the committee hearing, Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, a retired high school teacher, also worried counselors would lose their jobs to volunteer chaplains.

"I just think the two don't mix," she said, noting kids have different needs that school counselors and psychologists are trained to address. While Moss said she respects chaplains, she said children can access their services in religious institutions that are already available in their communities.

House Minority Leader Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, echoed those concerns.

"I really feel like if we're going to have someone advise our children in schools, it has to be a qualified person ... who has the expertise to do that," she said. "I really don't feel like this belongs in our schools."

However, some spoke in favor of the bill, arguing it would give schools extra help.

"Who knows, there may be some complications we run into," said Jennie Earl, a Utah State Board of Education member. "But I think providing additional resources on a voluntary basis, to me, really makes sense to our schools."

Nicholeen Peck, with the World Organization of Women, spoke in favor of the bill, seeing it as a "really positive thing for communities to be able to help the whole child."

"When you teach the whole child you're talking about the mental health of the child, the social health, the spiritual health, as well as the academic," she said. "This just seems like a really good, positive mental health step."

Constitutional concerns

Ellie Menlove, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, spoke against the bill, saying it "runs afoul of separation of church and state principles."

"Allowing chaplains in public schools will likely lead to unconstitutional promotion of religion in school settings," she said. "We recognize the student participation is voluntary under the bill, but we worry that allowing chaplains to serve in official positions in schools creates an inherently coercive context for students regardless of the intent."

Menlove said courts have repeatedly held that it's unconstitutional for public schools to "invite clergy to engage in religious activities with students. Chaplains have previously been allowed only in government institutions where access to religious services is otherwise limited, like public hospitals, the military or prisons.

"This justification does not exist for students who already have access to religious services through their families and their communities," Menlove said.

House Majority Whip Karianne Lisonbee, R-Syracuse, pushed back on Menlove's comments, arguing chaplains don't necessarily only provide "religious services."

Sarah Jones, director of government relations for the Utah Education Association, said her group had not taken a position on the bill, but asked lawmakers to consider some issues it could bring to schools.

"Nothing prohibits a chaplain from doing the job of a school counselor or prohibits the (district) from potentially supplanting the role of a school counselor, in lieu of voluntary chaplain, or no stated explanation for how a chaplain is supposed to work in conjunction with a school counselor," Jones said.

She also noted there's nothing in the bill that "prohibits a chaplain from proselytizing in the position or prohibits spiritual counseling or ensures that if they do provide counseling that they meet some kind of standard."

It also doesn't set any minimum professional qualifications, but schools could set those policies.

Utah News Dispatch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news source covering government, policy and the issues most impacting the lives of Utahns.


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