Indiana lawmakers want to put religious figures in public schools to help as counselors

INDIANAPOLIS — A controversial new bill calls into question the separation of church and state as Republican lawmakers in Indiana push to add religious figures into public schools as a proposed solution for an ongoing school counselor shortage.

While opponents of the bill argue that religious figures aren’t trained mental health advisors and putting them in schools opens up students to religious indoctrination, supporters claim the bill only provides a choice to parents, students and school districts and doesn’t require anyone to participate.

Senator Stacey Donato (R-District 18) authored Senate Bill 50 which would grant public and charter schools the authority to appoint chaplains who could provide both religious and non-religious support to students, staff and parents.

The chaplains could be either employees or volunteers at the school, according to the bill, and would be required to have at least two years of experience counseling children. Chaplains must also undergo standard criminal background check processes like any school hire.

Donato said the bill intends to “give schools another tool in their toolbox” when it comes to addressing the shortage of school counselors across Indiana.

According to Scott Carr, a representative of the Indiana School Counselor Association, Indiana currently has a pressing need for school counselors as the current ratio averages around 694 students for every one counselor. The recommended ratio is 251 students per counselor, said Carr.

The ACLU of Indiana raised concerns about the idea of putting clergy members into schools, pointing out that a chaplain’s primary role is providing religious counseling.

“Allowing them to assume official positions—whether paid or voluntary—in public schools will create an environment ripe for religious coercion and indoctrination of students,” the ACLU of Indiana stated.

As currently written, Senate Bill 50 states that chaplains could only provide religious support if granted permission from the student seeking support, the employee seeking support, or the parent or guardian of a student.

The bill also contains language saying the chaplains would not be required to divulge privileged or confidential communications from their meetings with the student, although Donato said the chaplains would need to follow the same rules as school counselors when it comes to reporting abuse.

Some senators raised concerns about the bill not requiring parental notification or approval if a student seeks out religious counseling with a chaplain.

Senator Andrea Hunley, a Democrat representing Indianapolis, said the bill contradicts previous efforts by the Republican members of the General Assembly which made schools required to inform parents if a student wished to change their pronouns. In that case, students weren’t given the freedom of choice, but SB 50 would grant them that freedom if it meant seeking religion.

Pastor Grey Lesesne of Christ Church Cathedral also testified against the bill on Wednesday stating that he did not believe members of the clergy had the proper training or experience to deal with non-religious student counseling and pointed out the fact that that chaplains are not trained as mental health advisors.

The pastor also raised concerns about the imbalance of power between a religious figure and a student.

Senator Shelli Yoder, a Democrat representing Bloomington, called the bill “problematic.” She said the bill would allow schools to hire unqualified religious figures to counsel students and permits “religious formation” without parental consent or notification — echoing similar cries of hypocrisy when lined up with previous Republican-backed laws.

“This anti-religious-freedom bill violates parental rights, is a complete one-eighty to all the talk about protecting parental rights just last year, and exposes our students to potential harm,” Yoder said.

Yoder attempted to add three amendments to the bill during the Republican-controlled committee hearing on Wednesday but had all three shot down. One of the amendments sought to add language that chaplains would be required to report sexual abuse and neglect.

While not currently in the language of the bill, Donato did support adding such language at a later time.

The bill passed through committee along party lines in a 9-4 vote. The bill will now head to the senate floor for further consideration and a full vote.

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