AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — Emboldened by a Supreme Court ruling last summer, Republicans in the Texas Legislature are ramping up efforts to put religion back in public schools. In response, advocates for religious freedom have mounted opposition to what they view as a blatant attack on church-state separation.
Senate Bill 1515 would require a poster of the Ten Commandments to be in every public school classroom in the state. Under Senate Bill 1396, public school districts would be able to adopt policies allowing for a moment of prayer and a reading from the Bible or other religious text during the school day. To participate in prayer, students and faculty must give written consent and conduct their activities away from students that have not provided consent. Finally, Senate Bill 763 is a measure that would allow school districts to employ chaplains to serve as school counselors.
Republican state Senator Mayes Middleton of Galveston authored both SB 1396 and SB 763. During the layout of SB 1396 on the Senate floor, he told his fellow lawmakers that the bill is needed to expand religious liberties in public schools.
“The reality is that our school children and faculty spend much of their lives in the school building and classroom…and our schools are not God-free zones,” said Middleton.
For Cantor Sheri Allen, the three bills represent less of an expansion of religious freedom and more of an attempt to instill Christian dominance. Allen has worked for years as a member of the Jewish clergy in the state and is co-founder of Makom Shelanu synagogue in Fort Worth, Texas.
In an interview, Allen said that SB 1396 and SB 1515 would create a toxic learning environment for children who do not practice Christianity.
“That is just exclusive and will heighten bullying which will heighten antisemitism and islamophobia,” said Allen.
As for SB 763, Allen, who has worked as a chaplain at a hospital, said she would be “completely unqualified to do the work that a school counselor does.”
Traditionally, chaplains provide spiritual care to people in medical settings, the military and for workers in government services such as police and firefighters. Chaplains offer this care to more than just people from their faith tradition, meaning a chaplain who is Jewish would still be able to provide pastoral services to someone who is Christian. Senate Bill 763, does not require chaplains to be certified by the State Board of Education, as school counselors are, or receive accreditation through a pastoral education program.
Allen fears that spiritual leaders, acting as school counselors, would result in children receiving religious teachings in place of real counseling services.
Despite these concerns raised by Allen and others, lawmakers have not wavered. In addition to seeing their legislation as addressing a need in public schools, Republicans believe that a ruling out of the Supreme Court last June makes their bills less likely to be struck down by the courts.
The case, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, was viewed by many conservative Christians as an example of how the government uses secularism to chill religious speech. Proponents of church-state separation saw it differently. They saw a government employee using his position as a coach to spread the gospel.
Joseph Kennedy, a high school football coach from Bremerton, Washington, sued his employer after he was suspended for holding prayers on the 50-yard line after games. He argued that the school district violated his right to freely exercise his religion.
Ruling 6-3, the high court’s conservative supermajority ruled in favor of Kennedy. In his majority opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch explained that the coach acted as a private citizen, not a public school employee, during his post-game prayers.