Chaplains in schools

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First Amendment Advocate, Vol. 3, No. 2, August 2002

The Newsletter of the Oklahoma Chapter of Americans United

Chaplains in our Public Schools?

by Jim Huff

 

 On May 4th the Daily Oklahoman reported that the Christian Leadership Foundation planned on , “stationing  full-time Christian ‘community builders’ in each of Oklahoma City’s public middle schools.”  

 

The Foundation would “hire  these community builders--- at roughly $40,000 to $50,000 annually per school--- to act as mentors and counselors to students.”  The privately funded  foundation  has proposed  “a  three  year pilot project in at least five middle schools.” 

 

Oklahoma City has five  middle schools. $45,000 dollars each for three years equals $675,000.  That’s  a  sizeable gift for a religious non-profit organization to give to a public school system. 

 

What do they expect to gain?  Could it be governmental permission to counsel public  school children on religious matters?

 

What  does  the employer (the Foundation)  expect  from  its employees (the “community builders”)?   What role will the Oklahoma City school district  play in approving, training and supervising these  privately funded full-time  “volunteers”? 

How  does  the  school district  avoid being perceived as endorsing the religion  of  the “community builders”?  How  are  the district’s private  academic, health, and family records to be utilized  with the “community builders”? 

 

The May 4th article said the “community builders would build relationships with students

and get to know their families.”  “If somebody’s mom is in the hospital . . . we would expect to be going to the hospital and find ways just to minister to the day-to-day needs of the kids at the school.”

 

District Attorney Wes Lane is quoted as saying, “The program would attack not only root educational issues such as literacy but also would provide stable role models to children and result in ‘crime prevention of the most profound nature’.”   Lane’s belief that such counseling could involve proselytizing is obvious:   “Most important of all, this project introduces children to a relationship with Jesus Christ, and the studies are so very clear that children who engage in the worship of God are far and away less likely to engage in crime.”

 

The proposed pilot program is clearly more than just mentoring, counseling, and encouraging students with their academic studies.  Visiting parents in hospitals is well beyond academic studies and very much in the realm of religious teachings and ministry.  Does the school district have responsibility to supervise such off campus and/or after hours  visitation?

 

In a radio interview, Mr. Lane objected to calling the “community builders” “chaplains” and said they would hold the same qualifications as school “counselors” with the added stipulation that they would also be “Christians.”  He said they would only do whatever the school district permitted.  Such “counselors” would help fill the shortage of counselors in the public schools.

 

On the air, Lane also told Dr. Bruce Prescott, host of the “Religious Talk” radio program, that the quote about “community builders” leading children to “a relationship with Jesus Christ” was taken out of context.   He claimed to have made that remark about an after-school mentoring program called “Whiz Kids.” 

 

The “Whiz Kids” program is conducted off  the school grounds.  It takes place at local churches and uses their members  as  tutors for  interested students.  Religious  encouragement is part of the program along with tutoring on academic subjects.   Parents  are informed of the religious nature of the program and they give their  permission  for their sons and daughters to participate.

 

At the press conference reported on by the Daily Oklahoman,  Christian Leadership Foundation  president, Kevin Jacobs, gave his spin on what the “community builders” would be doing at the public schools.  He was quoted as saying, “We’re not talking about an evangelism strategy.  We’re talking about a strategy to extend community and love to those kids.” He added, “Historically, the church met emotional, spiritual and physical needs of the people . . . over the decades that role was relegated to the government . . . government doesn’t do love very well.”

 

Jacobs statement raises more questions.  Holding that government doesn’t do love very well, Jacobs suggests that emotional counseling, spiritual  counseling, and love, as defined by the Christian faith, are all a part of the “community builders” job description.  This sounds like the job description of a Christian youth minister.  How are  school administrators  to supervise and relate to such full-time ministers on the school grounds?

 

“Community Builder” is clearly a euphemism for “Christian chaplain.”  Let’s be honest.  If  it walks like a chaplain, talks like a chaplain, acts like a chaplain —  it’s a chaplain. 

 

If there is a shortage of counselors in our schools, let us fund and hire more counselors and forego the unconstitutional “religious test” for holding such a position.

 

Once the School Board gives Christian “community builders” access to the  school grounds, how can the same access be denied to other faiths and non-faith groups? 

 

Considering the already existing Whiz Kids program and considering the legal, constitutional, and ethical problems that will be created with this pilot program,  the Oklahoma City School Board should clearly reject the proposal.

 

 

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