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Austin-area schools overwhelmingly reject hiring chaplains as counselors

State Representative James Talarico stands in front of a small group of people holding signs that read "protect religious freedom" outside of the Texas Capitol building.
Becky Fogel
KUT News
State Rep. James Talarico spoke at a news conference at the Texas Capitol on Thursday about a state law that required school boards to vote on whether to allow religious chaplains to serve as counselors.

State Rep. James Talarico, an Austin Democrat, praised school boards across Texas on Thursday for rejecting a Republican-led effort to let religious chaplains provide mental health services to students.

"We are here to celebrate an important victory in the fight against Christian nationalism," Talarico said during a news conference at the Texas Capitol. "There was a bill passed in the last legislative session that would allow school districts to replace school counselors with untrained, unsupervised and unqualified religious chaplains."

The legislation, Senate Bill 763, passed the Texas Legislature in May 2023 and allows districts to hire chaplains to perform the duties of school counselors even if they don’t have the training or credentials for the job.

Talarico has been a staunch opponent of the new law that also required school boards to take a record vote on whether to employ chaplains in this capacity by March 1. Trustees had to vote on whether chaplains could volunteer on campuses, too.

"We had folks speak out against this bill from across the political spectrum, from across different faith traditions, from across different communities," Talarico said. "We are proud to announce 25 of the biggest school districts in Texas have rejected this policy at the local level."

Supporters of the law said their goal was to help schools struggling to find enough mental health professionals to serve students.

The author of SB 763, Republican State Sen. Mayes Middleton said chaplains would help supplement the services counselors provide, not replace them.

"This adds another tool on the table for our students," Middleton said in a hearing on his bill last April. "Chaplains provide many services such as pastoral care, which is nonreligious spiritual care, they represent God in our government entities, they handle trauma care for our students."

However, Talarico said blocking the policy is a win for public schools.

"We are protecting our students and we are protecting our religious liberties at the local level across the state of Texas," he said.

Several faith-based groups opposed to SB 763 joined Talarico at the news conference, including Texas Impact, an interfaith group that helps religious leaders and their congregations learn about public policy and how to engage with their elected officials. Advocacy director Joshua Houston said, to his group’s knowledge, no Central Texas school board approved a policy allowing chaplains to be hired as school counselors.

“We are grateful at the wisdom that is still in local communities,” Houston told KUT. “Local faith groups…got with their trustees and really exercised the beautiful thing that is local democracy.”

Austin ISD is among the local school districts that will not hire chaplains as school counselors. The school board adopted a resolution in October 2023 barring the district from hiring unlicensed chaplains as counselors. The measure also reaffirmed the district’s current policy of “permitting any community members who meet requirements, including chaplains, to volunteer to provide support, services, and programs for students.”

Bastrop ISD's school board also opted against allowing the district to hire unlicensed chaplains as counselors. At a Feb. 20 meeting, some members of the public spoke in favor of letting chaplains provide mental health support and held small yellow signs that read, "We support school chaplaincy."

But, at that same meeting, the district underscored its current policy that allows chaplains to volunteer.

“Chaplains are another source of caring adults in our community and we would love to see them volunteer in our schools through our mentor program,” Deputy Superintendent Kristi Lee said. “And, of course, if a chaplain meets the job requirements of any position we have open…we would certainly consider them to become a valued employee in BISD.”

Other school districts in the Austin area that decided against policies to hire chaplains as school counselors when they don’t have the appropriate qualifications include:

State Rep. Talarico said he thinks it is an asset that school boards had to take a record vote on the issue.

"Because it's going to show lawmakers that this is deeply unpopular in all parts of the state," he said.

Becky Fogel is the education reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @beckyfogel.
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