Florida Gov. DeSantis signs bill allowing school chaplains, says satanists need not apply

The governor also predicted the state would prevail if the new law draws a legal challenge over separation of church and state concerns.

click to enlarge Florida Gov. DeSantis signs bill allowing school chaplains, says satanists need not apply
Photo via Gov. Ron DeSantis/Twitter
The state won’t allow satanists to take advantage of a new law allowing religious chaplains to serve as counselors in public schools for students whose parents approve, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Thursday while signing the legislation.

The governor also predicted the state would prevail if the new law draws a legal challenge over separation of church and state concerns.

“It’s our view that if school districts want to bring in chaplains to offer voluntary services, they’re within their right to do so. But there’s been a lot of confusion about that, about what’s permitted and what’s not. This legislation clarifies that, yes, school districts and charter schools have the authority to allow volunteer chaplains to be on campus and provide additional counseling and support to students,” DeSantis said during a bill-signing ceremony at Tohopekaliga High School in Kissimmee.

Students with problems may benefit from “some soul craft,” he added.

“It’s totally voluntary for a parent or a student to participate. No one’s being forced to do anything. But to exclude religious groups from campus, that is discrimination. You’re basically saying that God has no place. That’s wrong. That’s not what our Founding Fathers intended,” DeSantis said.

“Some have said that if you do a school chaplain program that, somehow, you’re going to have satanists running around in all our schools. We’re not playing those games in Florida. That is not a religion. That is not qualified to be able to participate in this. So, we’re going to be using common sense when it comes to this. You don’t have to worry about it.”

Representatives of the Satanic Temple have told the Florida Gannett newspapers that they intend to take advantage of the law. The group claims IRS recognition as a church.

The measure, HB 931, allows schools to authorize religious figures to offer counseling on campus. They would publish lists of these chaplains “to provide support, services, and programs to students as assigned by the district school board or charter school governing board,” the legislation says.

“Parents must be permitted to select a volunteer school chaplain from the list provided by the school district, which must include the chaplain’s religious affiliation, if any,” the law adds.

The legislation doesn’t outline qualifications for the volunteer chaplains other than passing a background check.

The governor also signed HB 1317, which allows “patriotic organizations” to address and recruit students with their parents’ consent. The state law refers to a list of groups designated by Congress, including the Boy Scouts of America, Girl Scouts of the United States of America, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and the Civil Air Patrol.

DeSantis reflected on the chaplains he encountered while in the U.S. Navy, some of them on the front lines.

“I think that model of just having this available as part of the services that you’re providing like we do in the military, we should be doing the same for our students here in school.”

Regarding chaplains, groups including the ACLU, Interfaith Alliance, and National Education Association warned that the measure faces litigation on ground that the program would allow religious indoctrination. The ACLU of Florida urged DeSantis to veto the bill.

DeSantis seemed primed for a fight.

“What the ACLU is basically saying is that it’s OK to discriminate against religious organizations. They think the church should be a second-class citizen. They think you should not have the same access to come to campus that any other student organization or other types of groups would have, that it’s an inferior status,” he said Thursday.

“The First Amendment was enacted to prevent that. The First Amendment was enacted to ensure that people weren’t discriminated against on the basis of religion or the basis of their faith. So, I think it’s a bogus challenge. I do not think it’s gonna go anywhere,” he continued.

The Legislature crafted the bill, DeSantis said, so that “if this is something that you don’t want, it doesn’t affect you at all and you don’t even have to worry about it.”

The Phoenix reached out to the ACLU for comment but hasn’t heard back yet.

The governor appeared to endorse arguments proffered by Christian nationalist writer David Barton, who said that the writers of the Constitution favored an active role for religion in government. Other scholars have refuted such claims, and Barton’s publisher withdrew his 2012 book, “The Jefferson Lies,” on the ground that “basic truths just were not there.”

“When education in the United States started, every school was a religious school. I mean, that was just part of it. Public schools were religious schools,” DeSantis insisted. “You know, there has been things that have been done over the years that veered away from it, that original intent. But the reality is, I think what we’re doing is really restoring the sense of purpose that our Founding Fathers wanted to see in education.”

The ACLU of Florida issued a written statement.

“Public schools are not Sunday schools and chaplains are not school counselors. Allowing chaplains to assume official positions — whether paid or voluntary — in public schools as counselors or other support staff will undermine this right by creating an environment ripe for evangelizing and religious coercion of students in violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” the organization said.

“Across the country, families and students practice a wide variety of faiths, and many are nonreligious. All should feel welcome in public schools. Even well-intentioned chaplain policies will undermine this fundamental premise of our public-education system and violate our longstanding First Amendment principles.”

Note: This story has been updated to include the ACLU statement.
Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.

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