Florida will open schools to volunteer chaplains

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida school districts will soon have the option of allowing volunteer chaplains to counsel students under a bill signed Thursday by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who dismissed critics opposed to mixing religion with public education.

The only requirements for a chaplain to participate would be passing a background check and having their name and religious affiliation listed on the school website. The chaplains would “provide support, services, and programs to students as assigned by the district school board.” The law that takes effect July 1.

DeSantis stressed that the program is voluntary. Schools don't have to have a chaplain and students don't have to work with them. Parental permission would be required if they do.

“No one’s being forced to do anything, but to exclude religious groups from campus, that is discrimination," DeSantis said. “You’re basically saying that God has no place. That’s wrong.”

Florida is among more than a dozen states that have sought to create school chaplain programs. Texas became the first under a law passed in 2023.

Supporters in Florida argued the legislation will provide another resource for children and pointed out that chaplains already serve in other government roles by working with police and serving in the military. The Legislature itself hosts a chaplain of the day when it’s in session and there’s a non-denominational chapel in the state Capitol.

Opponents cite several problems with the new Florida law, including there being no training requirements for chaplains. They also fear that some students might be ostracized if they are atheist or belong to a non-Christian religion in a Christian majority district.

“When you have a military chaplain, they go through intensive training and they have to be in a position where they can provide information which is factually correct and appropriate to the situation,” said Democratic Sen. Lori Berman of Palm Beach County.

Without that training, a chaplain could provide psychologically damaging counseling, Berman said. She suggested schools add more social workers, guidance counsellors or psychologists if they need them.

“Let's put the trained professionals in and not some unlicensed, untrained people with a religious affiliation,” Berman said.