Why Schools Hiring “Chaplains” Is a Terrible Idea

In 2023, Texas passed a law allowing schools to hire chaplains—either as employees or as volunteers—to serve in public schools. In 2024, Florida followed suit. And, as I write this, thirteen other states have proposed letting schools bring chaplains into schools to provide the same kinds of supports that counselors have traditionally provided: Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Utah all have bills on the table.

On the one hand, I’m not sure how I feel about schools working with religious communities to make sure that students, staff, and faculty have access to spiritual care. A school having a well-vetted list and set of descriptions of religious resources in its community might be a good thing.

On the other hand, that’s not what is happening here. In fact, despite the news coverage of these bills, state legislatures are not proposing allowing schools to hire chaplains at all. What they are proposing is allowing schools to invite any person who the school board feels is appropriate to come to the school and be religious at students.

You see, chaplaincy is a profession: it includes formalized education and training, demonstration of expertise in an area, recognition by a community, and adherence to code of ethics. Being a chaplain involves being part of that profession. And that is different from simply being a religious person (who might be part of a different profession) or even being a member of the clergy (who might be part of the profession of chaplaincy or part of a different profession, religious or secular).

Imagine, for example, that you wanted to be a chaplain in the United States Army. The Army requires its chaplains to have completed a graduate degree in religious or theological studies (often a Master of Divinity degree), become a clergy person within their faith tradition, and received endorsement from that faith tradition to serve in the military. Importantly, the Army requires that endorsement to include sensitivity to religious pluralism and the ability to provide for the free exercise of religion by all members of the military.

Or imagine that you wanted to be a chaplain at a hospital. Most hospital chaplains have completed a graduate degree in religious or theological studies (often a Master of Divinity degree), completed additional units of Clinical Pastoral Education (usually an additional year of education), been endorsed by their faith tradition to be chaplains, and been certified by one of the national associations that certifies chaplains. Importantly, once again, that endorsement and certification includes recognizing that you are sensitive to religious pluralism and able to provide services to people of any religious faith or none without proselytizing.

Now, look at the key paragraphs from Iowa’s proposed school chaplain bill (HF2073):

Sec. 3. New Section. 279.84 School Chaplains.

The board of directors of a school district may employ a chaplain, or engage a chaplain to serve without compensation or remuneration, to provide support, services, and programs for students asassigned by the board of directors of the school district.

The board of directors of a school district shall not require a chaplain employed or engaged under this section to have a license, endorsement, certification, authorization, or statement of recognition issued by the board of educational examiners.

The procedure for background investigations and termination established in section 279.69 shall apply to chaplains employed or engaged under this section.

The board of directors of a school district shall not require or coerce a student to utilize the support, services, or programs provided by a chaplain who is employed or engaged by the board of directors of the school district pursuant to this section.

Iowa House File 2073, Section 3

While the bill allows each school district to set its own requirements for school chaplains, it does not require school chaplains to meet the professional standards that chaplains have set for themselves, and it does not let the state board of educational examiners set standards for chaplains. On the one hand, a school district could set the same standards that many other settings set for their own chaplains. On the other hand, a school district could simply contract with their local conservative evangelical pastor to provide chaplain services with little oversight.

Proposed bills in other states—and the bills that have passed in other states—face the same problem. While these bills allow schools to hire real actual professional chaplains, they also allow schools to hire people who are definitely not chaplains. And those people who are definitely not chaplains—who are, at best, “chaplains”—could do real damage to the mental and spiritual health of the students who to whom they provide “spiritual care”.

In the end, schools hiring real actual professional chaplains might be okay. But schools hiring “chaplains” is a terrible idea for the same reasons that hiring “teachers”, “counselors”, “nurses”, or anyone else with sarcastic quotation marks around their titles would be.