Chaplains in public schools? Florida’s Catholic bishops ‘pleased’ by new law — By: Catholic News Agency

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CNA Newsroom, Apr 30, 2024 / 17:45 pm (CNA).

Florida’s bishops are welcoming a new law that allows public schools in the state to have volunteer chaplains.

The Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, which represents bishops in the state’s seven dioceses on public policy matters, did not take a position on the bill while legislators debated it earlier this year.

“However, we recognize the good that chaplains can do in schools by helping students to address their spiritual and emotional needs. We are pleased that parents will determine the services their children will receive in districts that choose to establish chaplaincy programs,” said Michelle Taylor, associate director of communications for the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, in an email message to CNA on Tuesday.

The measure, which takes effect July 1, requires public schools and charter schools that establish such a program to publish on their websites a list of volunteer school chaplains and their religious affiliation. It also requires that parents provide written consent before their child receives services from a chaplain or participates in programs provided by a chaplain.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, who signed the bill two weeks ago, said some school districts in Florida are already hosting chaplains, while school officials elsewhere were unsure whether it’s legal to do so.

The new statute clarifies the legal situation and explicitly enables school districts to provide a valuable aid to students, he said.

“Faith leaders and civic organizations are important additional resources for students who may be facing challenges or need to build community and camaraderie,”  DeSantis said in a statement. “I’m pleased to be able to expand the variety of options that students have at their disposal in school and we have no doubt that these options will enhance the experiences of our students.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida opposed the bill, saying it violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“Allowing chaplains to provide counseling and other support services in public schools would violate students’ and families’ religious-freedom rights by exposing all public school students to the risk of chaplains evangelizing them or imposing religion on them throughout their school day,” said Kara Gross, legislative director and senior policy counsel of the ACLU of Florida, in a statement in March after the Florida House passed the bill.

The Florida House of Representatives passed the bill in February, in a 89-25 vote. All the “No” votes were Democrats. All Republicans voted for it, as did four Democrats.

The Florida Senate passed the bill in March, in a straight party-line 28-12 vote, with Republicans for it and Democrats against it.

Texas enacted a comparable bill in June 2023. It took effect at the beginning of the current school year. The ACLU of Florida says 13 other states have had similar bills introduced in the state legislature.

DeSantis signed the Florida chaplain bill April 18 during an appearance at a school in Kissimmee. He said having a chaplain available could help kids who are struggling.

“You’ve got a lot of these problems that kids go through — you know, there’s some students, you know, they need some soul-craft. And that can make all the difference in the world,” DeSantis said

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