AUSTIN, Texas — Cantor Sheri Allen has worked in synagogues for more than a decade, and she recently opened her own in Fort Worth.
“We have only been in existence since November. We meet once a month at a church in the area and have Sabbath Shabbat services,” said Allen, who’s the co-founder of Makom Shelanu Congregation.
Even though Allen is a chaplain, she does not support legislation that’s advancing through the Texas Senate. It would allow school districts to bring in chaplains, as either volunteers or paid employees, to do the job of a counselor.
“First of all, chaplains are not trained in any way to be able to counsel children in anything other than spiritual needs,” Allen said. “There’s no place for this in schools.”
Allen believes the bill violates the Establishment Clause, which is part of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Commonly referred to as the “separation of church and state” clause, it prohibits the government from supporting a specific religion.
Allen is concerned that Texas lawmakers are promoting Christianity.
“It just makes me feel like there is a push to introduce Christian values, Christian liturgy, Christian thought in a public space,” Allen said. “School is hard enough for kids just trying to find their way in who they are.”
But the bill’s author, Sen. Mayes Middleton, R-Galveston, said this bill actually falls under the Free Exercise Clause, which is also part of the First Amendment. This clause protects someone’s right to practice their religion as they please.
“This is not an establishment clause issue,” Sen. Middleton said. “This is just… one more tool in the toolbox for our public schools to be able to meet the needs of their students.”
If a chaplain is paid, their salary would come from funding intended for school safety. Sen. Middleton argues that having chaplains on campus can help students’ and teachers’ mental health, thereby making schools safer.
Chaplains would not be required to be certified. They also could be hired in lieu of a school counselor, if the school district chooses to spend its money that way.
This bill is part of a bigger push by Texas Republicans to increase religion’s presence in the state’s public schools. But critics like Allen are raising concerns about violating the separation of church and state. The controversy revolves around three bills, including the one to bring chaplains into public schools. Another would mandate the display of the Ten Commandments in classrooms. Such a display sits on the Capitol grounds, but this is the first push for the text to appear in schools. A third bill would allow a period for prayer and reading the Bible or religious texts during the school day. Last year, a law passed that says schools must display "In God We Trust" posters in public schools if someone donates them.
When the school chaplain bill was debated on the Senate floor on Monday, Democratic Sens. Nathan Johnson of Dallas, José Menéndez of San Antonio and Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa of McAllen brought up a variety of concerns.
“What are the odds that a given campus is going to employ a Muslim chaplain as opposed to a Christian chaplain?” Sen. Johnson asked Sen. Middleton.
Sen. Middleton said it’ll be up to school districts to decide which chaplains they hire.
“We’re just authorizing our school districts to permissively opt in to this program,” he said.
“As a practical matter, I think it’s unlikely that we will see anything close to parity in representation in terms of which religion is represented by chaplains on a school campus,” Sen. Johnson said in response. “I just don’t think we’re going to see Muslim and Jewish rabbis on campus. Chaplains do a great deal of good in hospitals. They do a great deal of good in the correctional systems. I don’t think those systems are the same as our school system… I still have great concern that we are continuing to break down the wall of separation that framers of our Constitution insisted on having between church and state, and so I would respectfully oppose the bill.”
A majority of Chaplains are Christian, Sen. Middleton conceded on Monday.
“As you referred to the separation of church and state, that’s not an actual doctrine. That was in a letter from Jefferson to the Danbury baptists. It’s not a real doctrine,” Sen. Middleton argued. “What this does is free exercise [of religion], and I think you’re referring to the establishment clause there.”
“It’s a pretty real doctrine to some of us, but perhaps not to everyone,” Sen. Johnson fired back.
In an interview with Spectrum News, Sen. Middleton also made the point that lawmakers say a prayer every day in their respective chambers, and they work beneath lettering that says, “In God We Trust.”
“In the Senate chamber, in the House chamber, it says, ‘In God We Trust’ above everything else,” Sen. Middleton said. “So our schools are not God-free zones. And what this does is to make sure that our students are able to exercise their religion freely and provide them tools that they currently don’t have. So that’s why that bill is so important. So an example right here in this building of why religious liberties are so important.”
Sen. Middleton believes this bill stands on sturdy legal ground because last year the Supreme Court backed a public school football coach who prayed on the field after games.
“[This] expands religious liberties and really gets rid of a lot of the legislating from the bench that we’ve seen our courts do over the years that have limited that Free Exercise Clause in our Constitution,” Sen. Middleton said.
But Michael S. Ariens, a law professor at St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio, said the legislation Texas lawmakers are pushing cannot be compared to the so-called Kennedy Case.
“The court decided that because his prayer was as a private citizen, and not as a coach — that is, he was not on the clock in the sense of having to just do things related to his coaching activities — it was a violation of the Free Exercise Clause for the school district to forbid him for saying these prayers after the end of games on the 50-yard line,” Ariens said. “I think the sponsors of these bills are reading the Kennedy Case very, very broadly. I don’t think it says what they are asking, and I think that if any of the three bills that have been proposed that have something to do with what we broadly call ‘religious liberty,’ it will be immediately challenged on Constitutional grounds.”
As for Allen, she remains concerned about students who aren’t Christian — those who practice another religion or none at all — that could be made uncomfortable by framed posters of the Ten Commandments on classroom walls, time set aside to pray or read religious texts and even the presence of school chaplains.
“This is supposed to be a country that is open to all faiths, all religions and the ability to express them, but not in public schools. I mean, the Constitution is pretty clear about that,” Allen said.
A disagreement about the separation of church and state in schools is likely to go from the classroom to the courtroom.