School board in Ohio considers use of chaplains in schools

Wednesday, December 9, 1998

An Ohio school board is considering allowing schools to hire chaplains to counsel students.


Two civil rights groups have sent letters to the board urging it not to approve such a policy, suggesting it would subvert the separation of church and state.


Earlier this year, members of a St. Louis-based group called Public School Chaplaincy for America approached the superintendent of Brookville schools, a suburb of Dayton, with the idea of having chaplains counsel students.


“Our public schools are in a national state of emergency,” the group argued in a document outlining the proposed policy. “The need for motivation, moral support and spiritual support of our students must be met to alleviate the stresses they suffer from in this violent society.”


After the group made its suggestions, the Brookville School Board appointed a committee of school officials and citizens to create a chaplain policy. The committee drafted a job description for a chaplain. The chaplain position has not been voted on by the school board.


The job description states that the chaplain would be “responsible to see that all members of the Brookville School System community are offered spiritual, emotional, and physical support as needed.” The description also states that the chaplain “will seek to secure and maintain the personal respect of students.”


Late last month the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a national nonprofit group, wrote to Brookville Superintendent Larry G. Henry warning the district not to adopt the policy.


“I remind you that in the twentieth century, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution has been interpreted to require separation of church and state in the public-school context,” said Christine Link, executive director for the Ohio ACLU, in her letter. “Your plan for injecting a chaplain into the public school environment threatens serious violation of this principle, by endorsing that chaplain's religion over the religions not chosen, and by providing students with a daily reminder that the school believes that religion provides support that the secular world cannot.”


Link concluded that a chaplaincy would be “not only unwise; it is unconstitutional.”


Henry told the Dayton Daily News that no public money would be used to fund the program and that proselytizing would not be permitted.


Rob Boston, assistant communications director for Americans United, said that he was unaware of any other public school district that has considered hiring a chaplain. He added that his group's attorney had sent a letter to Henry saying that if the board adopted the proposal, the group would file a lawsuit.


Boston said his group had received calls from Brookville citizens expressing concern over the proposal.


“The school board simply has no constitutional leg to stand on,” Boston said. “A public school board cannot promote or endorse religion by hiring a chaplain, and most public school officials are smart enough to know that. This is a no-brainer; it is so obviously unconstitutional we should not have to resolve this matter by going to court.”


Jim Henderson, senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a national education and legal firm advocating a greater societal role for religion, said that from the Brookville job description, it doesn't sound like a chaplain's religious functions would be performed on school grounds.


“The proposal sounds more like a resource program to help students,” Henderson told freedomforum.org. “The only problems we could see with the proposal is the use of the term chaplain and how the schools would decide to choose a chaplain. But our group would love to see the school board accommodate students by allowing their pastors or pastoral care persons to come into the schools and meet with them when necessary.”