FFRF: Florida’s new public school chaplain law undermines religious liberty

Florida Gov. Desantis posing with the signed bills with a small group of people in a school gym.

When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed HB 931 into law, authorizing school districts to permit “volunteer school chaplains,” he openly confirmed that the bill will discriminate against disfavored minority religions. The Freedom From Religion Foundation condemns this harmful new measure and encourages Florida residents to speak out against it.

The public school chaplain law differs from its Texas prototype, passed last year, in that it only authorizes volunteer chaplains. Similar measures are now being considered in a dozen other states. It was advanced with promises that public school chaplain positions would be open to “everyone,” and that chaplains would provide spiritual counsel to students who wanted it but would not proselytize or coerce students into religious activities. When Florida school districts consider this new law, they now know that those promises were false.

During the debate on the bill, sponsoring state Sen. Erin Grall correctly noted that “as soon as we get in the middle of defining what is religion and what is not, and whether or not someone can be available and be on a list, we start to run up to constitutional problems.” Grall’s assurance was that anyone who wanted to be a chaplain, regardless of their religion or lack thereof, would be welcome. Anything less would be plainly discriminatory and unconstitutional.

However, DeSantis contradicted Grall as he signed the bill into law, commenting that satanists would “not qualify to be able to participate in this.” School districts that take DeSantis’ pandering comments seriously will toss themselves into unwinnable lawsuits — and Florida students will suffer for it.

Another empty assurance was that chaplains would not proselytize students. In reality, the group behind the chaplain bills is a Christian ministry whose goal is for chaplains to bring Christianity to “unreached” children between the ages of 4 and 14, and to lead school assemblies with prayer. The lobbying group is plainly aiming to exploit the school counselor shortage in order to preach to other people’s children, and is willing to make laughable, patently false claims to get into public schools.

And after all, if chaplains are not expected to push their religion onto students, why would DeSantis and others be so concerned about barring chaplains from disfavored minority religions? The assurance that the law will not favor Christian chaplains has been a bald-faced lie from the start.

“Our public schools respect the religious liberty of all students by refusing to take sides on matters of religion,” comments FFRF Senior Policy Counsel Ryan Jayne. “Bringing in school-sponsored religious leaders from favored denominations spoils this approach and sacrifices students’ religious liberty. Smart school board members will reject the notion out of hand, as many did in Texas.”

FFRF has previously contacted all school districts in Texas urging them to vote no against hiring school chaplains and is ready to sue there, with a coalition, depending on implementation. FFRF will similarly be urging Florida school districts to reject this patently ill-advised and unconstitutional scheme.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with 40,000 members and several chapters across the country, including over 2,000 members and the Central Florida Freethought Community chapter in Florida. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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