A new bill being pushed through the Texas state legislature seeks to allow Christian ideology and principles to be taught in public schools. This would include making it permissible for teachers to have displays about the Bible, Ten Commandments, prayer, etc. While critics of the bill have stated they believe it to be a violation of the principle of separation of church and state, many of the bill’s supporters have argued that the bill is a step forward for religious liberty and a crucial step in the fight against woke indoctrination of children in public schools.
By Talia Richman and Allie Morris; May 10, 2023
In kindergarten classrooms across Texas, 5-year-olds coming to school for the first time could soon be greeted by picture books, colorful blocks and the words, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.”
As those children grow up in the state’s public schools, they could get dedicated time in the day to read the Bible or pray. And if they are going through a hard time, they could turn to a chaplain — rather than a licensed school counselor — for help on campus.
Lawmakers are working to inject Christianity into the state’s public schools through a slate of bills under consideration in the Texas Legislature.
What critics see as an assault on the separation of church and state, supporters argue is a step forward for religious liberty after a major Supreme Court decision last year.
The religious bills are backed by powerful figures both inside and outside the Capitol building and are arriving as Republicans double-down on what is seen as a winning issue to energize their base: accusing public schools of indoctrinating students with a “woke” agenda.
But despite outcries of indoctrination, opponents of the bills warn that they place a premium on promoting a religious viewpoint to children.
“This is certainly moving towards a preferred faith in Texas, which is something that is deeply concerning,” said Joshua Houston, advocacy director for the interfaith group Texas Impact.
On Tuesday, the House gave final approval to a bill that would allow chaplains without state certification to work inside schools.
Rep. Cole Hefner, R-Mount Pleasant, said the plan is about giving school districts “every tool that we can in the toolbox” to combat mental health problems and other crises. He conceded that districts could eventually replace all counselors with chaplains, and rejected Democrats’ amendments to require parental consent and that schools provide a representative of any denomination if requested by a student, teacher or parent.
Rep. Gene Wu, a Houston Democrat, attempted to bar schools from using public funds to pay the chaplains.
“We should not use public monies to compensate religious services,” Wu said.
The amendment failed on a largely party-line vote, with Hefner saying it “just completely messes up the purpose of the bill.”
The tension on display Monday echoed earlier legislative hearings on the larger slate of religious bills.
Some believers argue that putting God into schools could make campuses safer from violence, as well as reflect foundational values. Opponents retort that kids who aren’t Christian could feel alienated in public classrooms.
Republican Rep. Brad Buckley, who chairs the public education committee, signed onto both a bill to require classrooms to hang posters of the Ten Commandments and one that would allow schools to hire chaplains.
When asked whether putting the Ten Commandments in classrooms would infringe on students who don’t practice Christianity, Buckley said the bill doesn’t call for instruction.
The legislation requires posters that are at least 20 inches high and 16 inches wide to be displayed in every classroom that declare “I AM the LORD thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods before me” and include the other commandments.
When asked how a teacher should respond if a student asks about their meaning, Buckley said it’s “a great time for a teacher to contact a child’s parent.”
“I don’t think this bill contemplates any instruction on that,” he said.
It also dovetails with Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s school-choice priority. The two Republicans are throwing their political weight behind a plan to funnel public dollars into families’ private school tuition — including at religious schools.
Abbott is using exclusively Christian campuses as rally spots. He’s visited at least a dozen schools across Texas, including Denton Calvary Academy in March.
Republican legislators behind the bills say they see an opening after the recent U.S. Supreme Court opinion that sided with a high school football coach who prayed on the field after games. Advocates say the opinion sets out a constitutional test that relies on history and tradition, and they are eager to test the proposed Texas laws before the court’s conservative majority.
“We think it is ripe, the opportunity is there,” former state Rep. Matt Krause told the Senate education committee last month. “We think there could be a restoration of faith in America.”
A few other states have made similar pushes, including a 2021 North Dakota law that allows the posting of Ten Commandments in classrooms alongside other historical texts.
Caroline Mala Corbin, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law, said the Texas bill requiring their display is the most problematic legally. The high court already found such a move unconstitutional, when in 1980 it held that a Kentucky law requiring the Ten Commandments be posted in public school classrooms was “plainly religious in nature.”
Corbin also pointed out that there is not a single version of the Ten Commandments, and that by choosing to display one, lawmakers are endorsing a specific religious denomination over others. Similarly, Corbin said in a country as diverse as the U.S., it is likely impossible to provide chaplains that cater to children of every faith, and therefore schools would be endorsing particular religions.
“The core principle of the Establishment Clause is that the government should not be favoring some religions over others and it does this to protect religious minorities,” said Corbin, whose research focuses on the First Amendment’s speech and religion clauses.
Shifts in local and statewide education positions could also be playing a role.
At the local level, school board elections are infused with highly partisan issues and big-money groups have attempted to “take over” some districts to make them more conservative.
The bill to bring chaplains on campus, as well as the one to allow for Bible reading and prayer time during school, contain an unusual provision: School boards would have to vote on whether to approve such a plan within six months of the legislation passing.
This could place political pressure on trustees to decide on a high-profile, touchy subject. The vote would likely come before the next set of school board races.
The State Board of Education also became more conservative after the last election cycle. Republicans flipped a seat and candidates further to the right replaced more moderate ones.
Among the new State Board of Education members is Julie Pickren, a former trustee from the Houston area who was in Washington during the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Pickren also sits on the board of the National School Chaplain Association, according to its website. The group has been pushing lawmakers to pass what they’ve labeled the “Chaplain’s Funding Bill.” She did not return a request for comment.
“We are very close to putting God and prayer in public schools through chaplains,” the group wrote to its supporters in an email blast earlier this month about the Texas bill, along with a request for donations.
The organization was central in the House debate Monday. Rep. James Talarico, D-Austin, referenced the group as he attempted to make amendments to the bill to include additional guardrails, including an unsuccessful one to require parental consent before a child visited with the chaplain.
The association’s website gives insight into the goals of the movement.
“The scale of transformation and spiritual renewal resulting from the school chaplain program might be best described as revival,” the website reads. “Millions of young people and adults in their lives are being won to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and discipled in the name of Jesus. Discipleship involves training to win and disciple others.”
The legislation would allow a public school to employ a chaplain to fulfill a broad range of roles on campus and would not require the person to earn state certification.
Texas faces a shortage of qualified mental health professionals to work in schools. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 students to every one counselor. In Texas, it was 392-to-1, according to 2021 data.
Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, asked whether it’s possible under the legislation that campuses could replace all of their counselors and social workers with chaplains.
“I trust our schools to make the right decisions in those areas. I don’t think they would do that,” Hefner said.
Houston, from the Texas interfaith group, said: “The question that lawmakers ought to ask themselves is just the basic golden rule, If it was a Muslim chaplain and a Christian child, what would you want the standards for the program to be?”