Iowa school districts could hire religious chaplains to counsel students under a bill given preliminary approval Tuesday in a House subcommittee.
House File 2073 advanced after the Tuesday meeting; a Senate subcommittee passed its version of the bill, Senate Study Bill 3092, last week. The legislation would allow chaplains to serve as an employee or volunteer at Iowa schools, providing “support, services and programs” to students.
The proposal is similar to a Texas law signed in 2023, seeking to address staffing shortages by employing chaplains as school counselors. While the Iowa bill would not employ chaplains as counselors, they would be allowed to provide many of the same supports typically covered by counseling services.
The bill does not define “chaplain,” a term that commonly refers to a member of the clergy attached to a military or first responder unit, hospital or private chapel or institution.
Multiple speakers said that they were concerned about the legislation because it does not require chaplains to be licensed, certified or have a special endorsement in order to be able to work in a school — a requirement for other school employees. Chaplains would be required to pass a background check.
Melissa Peters with the Iowa State Education Association said the organization does not oppose chaplains providing volunteer services to schools. But she said the legislation’s proposal to classify them as school employees without any certification or oversight from the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners would exempt chaplains from mandatory reporter requirements. Chaplains employed by school districts would not have any obligation to report abuse under the current language.
Peters also asked lawmakers to keep in mind that other bills being considered in the 2024 legislative session would add requirements for all school employees and expand investigations on issues like “grooming” students or complaints of school staff having inappropriate relationships with students.
“This bill would be in direct conflict with those pieces of legislation, as (chaplains) would be classified school employees, but the bill specifically states they would not have any oversight under the Board of Educational Examiners,” Peters said. “This is not the way to keep our students safe.”
Chuck Hurley with the Family Leader said he has visited Texas and heard “things are going fabulously” in implementing the new law, and that chaplains are an effective way to provide help to schools that need more counseling and mental health resources. He also pushed back against criticisms of the lack of certification requirements, saying that school boards have the ability to implement their own requirements.
“Kids are under a lot of pressure and all the help that we can get them we should try to get them,” Hurley said. “The local school boards will be able to establish training or criteria if they so choose. I think one of the beautiful things that the Legislature can and does do with bills like, this is you speak to the whole state. You indicate to the whole state that you’re supportive of trying to help kids in these ways.”
The bill specifically states that school boards could not require that chaplains have a “license, endorsement, certification, authorization, or statement of recognition issued by the board of educational examiners.”
Rep. Dan Gehlbach, R-Urbandale, said lawmakers were open to considering an amendment to the bill adding a mandatory reporting requirement for chaplains.
Others criticized the legislation for not properly adhering to the principle of the “separation of church and state” under the Establishment Clause under the U.S. Constitution that prohibits government from passing laws “respecting an establishment of religion.”
But Sam Randles, an attorney with the Pacific Justice Institute, a conservative legal defense organization, said that the separation of religious and political or government entities is not required by the U.S. Constitution or in laws. He said the 2022 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District created a precedent to discourage reading the Constitution “in a way that creates hostility towards religion” to ensure no violations of the constitutional rights to freedom of speech and expression.
Randles also pointed to measures in the bill that prohibit school districts from requiring or coercing students to use a chaplain’s services.
“To be opposed to this bill is to be opposed to this, another resource, that students would have to support them, again, in a very challenging environment,” Randles said. “And it has a very solid legal foundation and really, there’s no conceivable legal argument against this bill. I’m very confident that it would pass any constitutional challenge.”
Mortimer Adramelech, a minister of the Satanic Temple, said he was opposed to the bill on the basis of the separation of church and state.
“But if the bill does pass, I’m excited for the opportunities it presents for the Satanic Temple to provide support, services and programs to school children in our state,” Adramelech said. “Iowa has several ordained Ministers of Satan, and we would be happy to engage children. Hail Satan, Hail Iowa, and thank you for your time.”
Rep. Heather Hora, R-Washington, said the legislation is constitutionally sound, and that the Texas law went into effect with no legal challenges.
“Supreme Court precedent makes it clear that this is permitted under the Constitution, just as we have chaplains in so many other secular institutions, like the military and prisons, first responders and others,” Hora said.