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GOP lawmakers look to allow chaplains in Pennsylvania’s public schools

  • By Jaxon White/LNP | LancasterOnline
East Earl Republican state Rep. Dave Zimmerman (left) watched the Feb. 22 House Appropriations Committee meeting with other attendees.

 Jaxon White / LNP | LancasterOnline

East Earl Republican state Rep. Dave Zimmerman (left) watched the Feb. 22 House Appropriations Committee meeting with other attendees.

Republican-led state legislatures in Texas and Florida have allowed school boards to invite chaplains into public school districts to serve as counselors to students and teachers.

Now Republican state Rep. Dave Zimmerman, of East Earl Township, is pushing state legislators to do the same in Pennsylvania to help address the state’s mental health crisis.

Some opponents have raised red flags about the legislation, arguing it could cause further religious division in schools and impact students’ mental health if the chaplains’ roles are not clearly defined.

Zimmerman’s proposal would require school boards to adopt a policy about whether to allow a certified school chaplain in their district “to provide support, services and programs for students and employees as assigned by the governing body of the school.”

“We have chaplains available in so many other places, but not in schools,” said Zimmerman, citing their frequent use in prisons, hospitals and among first responder and police units. “Just having the chaplain available could be a good resource to those who might feel safer with a chaplain available.”

The bill specifies a chaplain must be certified by the National School Chaplain Association or “other similar organization” to qualify for school work. The association, a religious activist group, played a pivotal role in pushing similar legislation in Texas and Florida.

The NSCA describes itself on its website as a “Christian chaplain ministry,” but Zimmerman’s bill does not require a chaplain to be a Christian to serve in a school.

School boards could choose to pay these chaplains or accept them as volunteers.

A similar policy passed in Texas last year has been blamed for sparking a wave of culture-war debates in public school board meetings as members debated how to define chaplains’ roles in districts that chose to welcome them, according to Religious News Service.

Those who oppose Texas’ legislation have said chaplains can’t serve as a replacement for licensed mental health professionals and expressed concerns that chaplains could intentionally or inadvertently recruit students to the chaplains’ faiths.

Responding to those criticisms, Zimmerman said students would not be required to visit the chaplain if they didn’t want to.

Zimmerman regularly meets behind closed doors in the Capitol building with faith leaders, including some who are tied to Christian Dominionism — a belief that God mandates Christians to seize authority over all aspects of government and culture.

The NSCA is led by Rocky Malloy, who also founded Mission Generation, which once said on its website that it sought to recruit school students to Christianity, according to the Texas Tribune. The group’s website is no longer active and leads directly to the chaplain association’s webpage, but Malloy’s ties caused some to question the chaplain association’s motive for pushing the legislation.

Johnny Davis, chief development officer at the National School Chaplain Association, scheduled a meeting with LNP | LancasterOnline but later canceled it.

Zimmerman confirmed he has had “considerable dialogue” with leaders at the chaplain association, but he did not specify with whom he had spoken.

He said he was inspired to introduce the legislation by his experience overseeing the police department in his former role as an East Earl Township supervisor. Under his supervision, the department brought in two volunteer chaplains to advise officers. “They served us well,” he said.

Greg Carey, co-pastor at Life Church in Lititz and a professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary, said allowing chaplains into schools is “a violation of (the) separation of church and state.”

“I’m not suggesting no one would desire to have the service,” Carey said. “But it could also create division in the school depending on how the chaplain might work in the school or the type of programs that chaplain would introduce.”

Carey said having a chaplain in a school is “inherently sectarian” because “it means one point of view is being represented and not others.”

Though Zimmerman’s legislation has garnered support from some Republican lawmakers, including Upper Leacock Township state Rep. Keith Greiner, Democrats would have to back the proposal to advance it to a floor vote.

The bill has not been acted on since it was referred to the House Education Committee last month.

Committee Chairman Peter Schweyer, a Lehigh County Democrat, said Zimmerman’s proposal was “nowhere on my radar screen,” adding he and House Democrats have kept their focus on correcting the state’s public school funding formula, found unconstitutional by a Commonwealth Court judge for underfunding poorer districts.

Impact on students

In February, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association released a report showing two-thirds of the 276 responding public school superintendents listed student mental health as the biggest challenge to classroom instruction. Nearly half of the administrators said at least 60% of their students had mental health issues.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in its 2011-2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey that adolescent mental health has worsened in recent years. Feelings of distress have particularly impacted female, LGBTQ+ and Black students.

A letter Zimmerman circulated among his colleagues seeking their support of his bill cited several studies conducted by the chaplain association that found having chaplains in schools improves safety, teacher retention and mental health.

Nadine Garner, associate professor in counselor education and supervision at Millersville University, said schools would need to “define and operationalize” the role of potential school chaplains.

“We are very much not separating church and state when you bring in a school chaplain,” Garner said. “School chaplains should not at all be seen as a replacement for a professional school counselor.”

The bill does not define the role of in-school chaplains, leaving their potential duties for the school’s board to decide.

Garner, who supervises the university’s counselor training program, said she teaches her students to remove their personal biases and religious beliefs when working with students. She said chaplains likely do not go through the same training, which could potentially lead to proselytizing in schools.

“If public schools are going to invite school chaplains to be part of their offerings, they need to proceed with great caution and great intention,” Garner said.

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