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Kansas House bill invites chaplains to deliver Godly counseling to public school students, staff – The Lawrence Times

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Contents
  1. Legislation allows unlicensed employees, volunteers to enter mental health arena
  2. Proselytization
  3. Why not schools?
  4. Latest state news:

Legislation allows unlicensed employees, volunteers to enter mental health arena

TOPEKA — Rep. Bill Rhiley proposed the Kansas House pass a bill granting public school districts the opportunity to hire unlicensed chaplains or welcome volunteer chaplains to serve as trusted Biblical advisors and Godly counselors to students, teachers and staff in school buildings.

Rhiley said the legislation was a slimmed-down version of a Texas statute adopted in 2023 that similarly gave school districts the option of bringing on chaplains even if they lacked a state education license. He said appointment decisions would be up to local school boards in Kansas, but he preferred districts follow guidelines of the National School Chaplain Association or a comparable organization rather than policies developed by the elected Kansas State Board of Education.

He said mental health challenges experienced by educators and students were linked to a disconnect from spirituality. He said calamities of bullying, low self-esteem, depression, peer pressure, anxiety and violence could be deflated through direct intervention of chaplains with faith-based advice.

“In this era of conflict, discord and loneliness, the role of chaplain has never been more critical,” said Rhiley, a Wellington Republican who has served in the House since 2019. “Chaplains will be in schools as a moral compass and a moral spiritual guide.”

Skeptics of House Bill 2732 pointed to the one-page bill’s failure to include language setting a prohibition on proselytizing about theology. The bill elicited concern it would resemble a Trojan horse enabling evangelical Christian activists the chance to recruit in public schools. The bill didn’t feature provisions enabling students to request chaplains from a specific faith or denomination.

Tim Graham, who represents the Kansas National Education Association, said tasks proposed for chaplains were jobs of licensed school social workers, psychologists and counselors.

“Our opposition to House Bill 2732 should not be construed as a statement that faith and religion shouldn’t play an important part in the lives of Kansans,” Graham said. “However, we believe that the appropriate avenue for such thought is the church and not the public school.”

Proselytization

Leah Fliter, part of the Kansas Association of School Boards’ lobbying team at the Capitol, said the membership opposed the bill because there was danger in would supplant trained mental health professionals with a chaplain who may or may not have a K-12 education credential. She said KASB objected to any attempt to erode the constitutional principle that government was forbidden to make law respecting establishment of religion.

“Our system of local and state control of public education by boards of education is a cornerstone of American democracy,” she said. “Essential to that democracy and to the public nature of public education is a separation of church and state set forth in the Constitution of the United States.”

Rabbi Moti Rieber, executive director of Kansas InterFaith Action, said the bill was deficient because it didn’t outline qualifications of school chaplains. The bill didn’t set requirements for training chaplains in core competencies required of non-religious professionals engaged in mental health counseling in schools.

The bill would forbid deployment in schools of a chaplain who had been convicted of an offense requiring registration as a sex offender and would subject chaplain applicants to criminal history background checks, but it wouldn’t make chaplains mandatory reporters of child abuse.

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“It’s an unfortunate fact of Kansas law that clergy are not considered mandatory reporters,” Rieber said. “Yet, school employees are. Would chaplains hired by school districts be subject to the stricter standard? The legislation doesn’t say.”

He said the House legislation didn’t require parental consent for chaplains to counsel students nor did it mandate training designed to maintain confidentiality of sensitive personal information of students or employees.

“Speaking as a member of a religious minority,” Rieber said, “we are concerned that this bill would serve, and perhaps is intended to serve, as an end-run around restrictions on proselytization in public schools.”

Why not schools?

Jim Schmidt, a Tulsa, Oklahoma, ambassador with the National School Chaplain Association, said members of the military, law enforcement officers, first responders and prison inmates had access to chaplains. It amounted to discrimination that educators didn’t have guidance of a chaplain in schools, he said.

“We believe our bill that Rep. Rhiley has presented gives equal opportunity for teachers that have been discriminated against,” said Schmidt, who asserted teachers were eager for introduction of chaplains in Kansas public schools.

Rep. Kirk Haskins, D-Topeka, asked Schmidt for evidence of interest among Kansans in hiring chaplains for the 1,300 public school buildings.

“What data do you have that supports there is demand here in Kansas for such a bill?” he said. “Have you conducted any survey … of Kansas teachers that validates your point that teachers here in Kansas are grateful for the opportunity to even think about having a chaplain?”

Schmidt said such a study hadn’t been performed in Kansas. He said passage of the Texas bill inspired about a dozen states, including Kansas, to introduce comparable reform bills.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: [email protected]. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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