Calif. ‘school chaplaincy’ makes changes due to FFRF complaint

1turlocklogoA California school district has taken a number of steps to conform with the U.S. Constitution following a Freedom From Religion Foundation complaint.

The Turlock Unified School District had a partnership with the Turlock Chaplaincy, a group of ordained ministers. Some of these ministers and other volunteers were labeled “school chaplains” and permitted to work with elementary school kids on school property during the school day. The chaplaincy website displays a badge with a cross and a Star of David on it. Even though the chaplaincy’s executive director has claimed that the organization doesn’t preach, he has also admitted that chaplains have talked to kids about religion, and has said, “We are faith-based, and we don’t want to run away from that. It’s our strength.”

FFRF raised objections to the partnership.

“It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for the School District to offer religious leaders unique access to befriend students during the school day on school property,” FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote to Turlock Unified School District Superintendent Dana Salles Trevethan. “No outside audience should be provided carte blanche access to minors—a captive audience—in a public school. It is well settled that public schools may not advance or promote religion.”

An attorney for the school district promptly phoned Ziegler after receiving the letter. He informed FFRF that the training for the program was completely secular, but acknowledged that the name of the program needed to be changed and that the volunteering opportunity needed to be available to everyone, not just religious people.

Trevethan replied in writing to inform FFRF that the School District is making several alternations to the program to make sure that it does not violate the First Amendment. This includes changing the branding (including on volunteers’ shirts) to “Character Coach” from “School Chaplain.” The district will also issue a new Religion in the Schools policy to emphasize neutrality in religion and will provide details of all these changes to the staff and community. Trevethan also assured FFRF that no religious affiliation would be required to participate

FFRF appreciates these measures.

“The fact that the Turlock Unified School District realized the need to make these changes shows how constitutionally afoul the program originally was,” says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “We’re glad that the district has seen fit to remedy these transgressions.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is dedicated to the separation of state and church, with 24,000 members nationwide, including more than 3,000 in California.


Freedom From Religion Foundation

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