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Following in the footsteps of several other states across the nation, a Senate committee in Florida has approved a bill whereby schools could cope with a shortage of psychologists by authorizing volunteer chaplains to support students.

Under a bill approved by the Senate committee on February 6, the chaplains would “provide support, services, and programs to students as assigned by the district school board.”

Within a span of three weeks prior to the bill’s passage, lawmakers in Alabama, Iowa and Indiana passed similar measures. Ohio passed an almost identical bill in August 2023, while Texas enacted comparable legislation in June.

According to the Florida bill, the sole prerequisites for a chaplain engaging in a school program entail undergoing a background check and having their name and religious affiliation posted on the school’s website. 

Advocates of the legislation asserted that it would offer an additional support system for children amidst challenging circumstances. Critics, however, expressed concerns about potential repercussions, such as children being exposed to inappropriate or unwelcome spiritual guidance and the potential exploitation of the program by white Christian nationalists for student indoctrination.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Senator Erin Grall, said she perceives the initiative as a substitute for mental health counselors that offers families an alternative avenue for support.

“It can be very powerful and should be available to students with their parents’ consent,” Grall said, brushing aside concerns about chaplains potentially offering misguided advice. “What happens when our children receive the wrong advice from a mental health counselor?” she argued.

 According to the Florida Association of School Psychologists, there is one psychologist for every 1,800 students, which exceeds the recommended 500:1 ratio by well over threefold. 

Schools would be required to furnish a roster of endorsed chaplains, with parents needing to enroll their child. Proponents of the bill likened the initiative to the presence of chaplains in other sectors such as first responders and the military.  

“If the federal government allows chaplain services in the military, shouldn’t we allow children to have access to these services here in Florida?” Florida Citizens Alliance Program Manager Ryan Kennedy asked Senate committee members on February 6.

Numerous religious leaders from various backgrounds informed senators that they believe the proposal is unnecessary. 

“Families already have access within their communities if their child is in need of spiritual care,” said the Rev. Rachel Gunter Shapard, co-founder of Pastors for Florida Children, a coalition of clergy and laypeople across the state advocating for fully funded public schools. “In cases where families cannot get to a house of worship, clergy visit them in their home.” 

If implemented, the proposal would put school districts “in a position that takes their attention away from education,” said Democratic Senator Rosalind Osgood, who voted against the bill.

“Now the school board is focused on chaplaincy instead of education,” argued Osgood, who, besides having a master’s degree in divinity, brings expertise to her role, as a former Broward County school board member as well as a chaplain for the Fort Lauderdale Police Department. 

Osgood cautioned about the diverse interpretations of religious beliefs, highlighting the varying stances even within Christianity, such as certain Baptist groups that disapprove of female pastors, and individuals who employ religion in a divisive manner rather than embracing inclusivity. A comparable House bill is poised for consideration by the entire chamber, while the Senate bill awaits one final committee review.

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