The Texas Legislature’s approval of hiring chaplains to provide mental health services in public schools sparked a battle over religious influence in education. Now, seven months after the bill’s passage, the debate continues on school boards as some districts begin to vote on the policy.
Last Tuesday, the Fort Worth Independent School District decided that chaplains won’t provide mental health services to students. Board First Vice President Anne Darr said hiring chaplains would be an insult to mental health professionals who go through years of training to serve in that role.
Mansfield, Grapevine-Colleyville (GCISD), and Keller are also districts that recently voted not to hire chaplains as counselors but accepted that chaplains could apply as volunteers.
Senate Bill 763 was passed last May and allows school districts to use security funds to hire chaplains to act as counselors or provide mental health services on campus, which some supporters said could help address students’ mental health issues. The bill did not specify whether chaplains should have specific training, and lawmakers required the more than 1,200 school districts to define those requirements by March 2024.
Rev. Dave Welch, an influential figure in conservative Christian activism, has outlined a strategic plan to support the use of school chaplains. His approach involves winning over school leaders and recruiting pastors to see this as a mission field, echoing the efforts of the National School Chaplain Association (NSCA) to push for similar legislation nationwide.
“As NSCA officers engage state legislators we are energized to know that this school chaplaincy bill will pave the way for spiritual care, support, and Biblical guidance for children, teachers, and staff in public schools throughout many states,” read an email to NSCA supporters.
Still, some liberals have expressed concern that public schools could turn into spaces for religious recruitment. Other religious people, like Cameron Vickrey, a Cooperative Baptist pastor, have expressed concern about the policy.
“It just baffles me that it feels like a good idea to anybody,” said Vickrey. “It feels to me like an infiltration of the religious right — the conservative, Christian religious right — into our public schools, which is a trend we’ve been seeing in almost every area.”
More than 100 Texas chaplains signed a letter in August, saying that hiring chaplains without professional training could be harmful to students.
As the March deadline for school boards to decide on chaplaincy approaches, tensions and divisions persist, signaling a fractured landscape in Texas education debates.