Bills to employ school chaplains, allow religious instruction move forward in Indiana legislature

Both proposals drew several hours of testimony at the Statehouse on Wednesday.

By: - January 25, 2024 7:00 am

School chaplain and religious instruction bills advance. (Getty Images)

Lines between church and state blurred at the Indiana Statehouse on Wednesday as lawmakers gave the go-ahead for two education bills that seek to increase students’ access to faith leaders and religious instruction. 

One proposal, House Bill 1137, would require schools to approve parental requests for students to leave school during the day for religious instruction. A separate measure, Senate Bill 50, could bring paid chaplains into Indiana’s public schools. Both bills advanced from their assigned committees and now head to the respective chambers for further consideration.

“Quite simply, this just gives the parent more control over their student,” said Rep. Kendell Culp, R-Rensselaer, who authored the House bill. “If the students can go off-site and learn character qualities, and become better students, they’re going to have a greater experience in the classroom, and I think that’s really important.”

Rep. Kendell Culp, R-Rensselaer (Photo from Indiana House Republicans)

In the opposite chamber, Sen. Stacey Donato, R-Logansport, said her bill can help traditional school counselors who are struggling to manage large caseloads and increasing numbers of students in need.

“We are just trying to provide another tool for schools to help with the production of great students … offering an option for a chaplain to come in and assist,” she said.

Guaranteed time for religious instruction

Culp’s bill aims to tighten existing Indiana law that already permits students to leave school for up to 120 minutes a week for voluntary religious instruction, as long as it takes place off school property, and private transportation is provided. 

A 1952 U.S. Supreme Court ruling affirmed that“released time” programs are constitutional nationwide. As such, Hoosier parents can request religious instruction time for their child, but school administrators do not have to give approval.

Under the house bill, that “veto power” over the parent goes away, Culp said. 

The bill — which passed unanimously — stipulates that when a parent of a public school student provides a written request, the principal “shall” allow the student to attend outside religious instruction that is organized by a church or religious organization.

The legislation also says a school principal must work “in a collaborative manner” with the parent to find the best time during the school day for a student to leave the school. 

“That’s very important, because we don’t want to interrupt the school day with students leaving at multiple times,” Culp said. “It’s best to work together to make sure that we don’t have an interruption of that critical instruction that takes place during the school day.”

House Education Chair Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, leads a meeting on Jan. 24, 2024. (Whitney Downard/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

An amendment to the bill adopted on Wednesday additionally clarifies that students who are habitually truant — those who have 10 or more unexcused absences — would not automatically qualify for religious instruction release. Students must also “be in academic good standing,” though lawmakers said they could amend that language on the House floor to be more specific.

“I want to give kids this opportunity, for sure. But I want to make sure that they’re not behind — or contribute to falling further behind,” said Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, who chairs the House education committee.

Multiple organizations around the state — mainly Christian-centered — offer out-of-school curriculum for religious teaching, Culp said. 

One of those, Ohio-based LifeWise Academy, currently serves more than 80% of elementary schoolers in northwest Indiana’s West Central School Corporation.

“These programs emphasize character,” said Dennis Guttwein, who serves on the district school board. “Teaching from the Bible — it is full of character that is sorely lacking in our society today. Things like honesty, humility, integrity, patience.”

The program is now in its third year at West Central. Guttwein said students are allowed to leave school once a week, during a designated “library time.”

Joel Penton, founder and CEO of LifeWise, said the program actively serves more than 300 schools across more than a dozen U.S. cities. nationwide. Every week, nearly 30,000 public school students attend LifeWise Bible classes, he noted.

Joel Penton, founder and CEO of LifeWise (Photo courtesy LifeWise Academy)

“We know that parents desperately want Bible education for their students as part of their public school day,” Penton said. “However, we’re aware that it’s simply not feasible for many, many of those families.”

He emphasized that LifeWise is “entirely voluntary,” and “zero core academic classes are missed” by students who choose to attend. 

When asked why the programming couldn’t take place after school, Penton maintained that many students still need to catch the bus to get home, and others are already involved in after-school extracurriculars.

He said, too, that non-participating students and families “are not really affected in any meaningful way.”

But Chris Lagoni, executive director of the Indiana Small and Rural Schools Association, said it’s difficult to avoid disruptions in a school when dozens — even hundreds — of students are leaving for an organized program.

“We have to be careful. Let’s say the Archdiocese comes to the table and says, ‘Well, we’d like to offer our own program, and the local mosque comes forward and says, ‘Well, we’d like to own our own program,’” Lagoni said in an example. “Looking down the road, how do you implement this when you’re dealing with multiple entities that are trying to get everybody to the table to agree upon a time that works and has minimal instructional interruption?”

Lagoni also recommended an amendment to ensure students can not leave school during state standardized testing times.

Lisa Tanselle, general counsel for the Indiana School Boards Association (ISBA), said the organization representing all 290 school corporations across the state is opposed to the bill.

“We want to preserve the academic day for students. That doesn’t mean we are opposed or don’t appreciate the value of religious instruction,” she said. “This statute is designed to allow individual parents the opportunity to come to school officials and request release time for their students for up to 120 minutes. We believe that the current statute is working, and those requests are being accommodated for the vast majority of parents that make the request.”

Secular support throughout Hoosier schools

Testimony and discussion in the Senate education committee proved more tense.

Donato said her bill aims to give schools “an option to add additional resources for emotional needs of students.”

Chaplains can already volunteer at public schools. The measure makes clear they can be employed to provide “secular support” to students and school employees, given they have a master’s degree in divinity, theology, religious studies, or a related field, as well as two years of “counseling experience.”

Sen. Stacey Donato, R-Logansport (Photo from Indiana Senate Republicans)

Donato further emphasized that chaplains “must follow the same rules as school counselors,” including mandatory reporting of child abuse — although the bill does not say so, explicitly. 

ISBA executive director Terry Spradlin said the bill “is structured in a good way” to give school districts a “local option” to hire or receive chaplains as volunteers.

Representing the Indiana School Counselors Association, Scott Carr said the group supports the proposal, but recommended additional language to ensure that chaplains who work with students are familiar with the developing brain counseling of adolescent children.

He pointed to similar bills that have already moved forward in states like Ohio and Texas.

Although Donato maintained that students don’t have to meet with a chaplain or traditional school counselor if they don’t want to, conservative attorney Jim Bopp — who testified in support of the bill — read the language differently.

“Children have very limited legal and developmental competency to make decisions for themselves. The vast majority of decisions are made by parents — and this is one that they are perfectly competent and capable of, and in the best interest of the children, would consent to. And it doesn’t matter that the kid doesn’t want to,” Bopp said. “The kid doesn’t want to go to church on Sunday morning. Is that child abuse to say, ‘Okay, Johnny get up, and we’re taking you into church?’”

The provision in question dictates that a student, employee or parent can additionally permit a chaplain to provide “nonsecular advice, guidance and support.”

Democrats held that could go against the wishes of a student or parents “who aren’t on the same page.”

Chris Daley, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Indiana, agreed, saying language in the bill that allows parents to direct a chaplain to provide religious counseling to the students “is a form of coercion outside of the school environment.”

“That is a liberty issue that we do believe infringes on the constitutional rights of those students,” Daley said.

“Focusing this only on chaplains and not other members of the community who would like to fill this role, certainly does implicate Establishment Clause issues,” he continued, referring to the First Amendment. “Indiana has chaplains in any number of areas of public life. We do not have them in our schools in an official capacity for exactly this reason.”

Members of the minority caucus voted against the measure in committee and said they would rather focus directly on Indiana’s ongoing school counselor “crisis.”

A ‘crisis’ of their own: Indiana school counselors detail overwhelming duties, pushing some out

Gray Lesesne, pastor at Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis, also pushed back, telling lawmakers he feels “no way prepared or qualified — either academically or professionally — to serve as a secular counselor or academic advisor or a chaplain in a public school.” 

He said most seminaries do not require courses in counseling childhood or youth psychosocial development.

Lesesne said he worried the legislation would also make it difficult for chaplain to maintain “appropriate professional boundaries.”

“Even if I were to dispense secular advice to a young person as a chaplain, they would have a difficult time separating me from my role and calling, and could interpret that as religious counseling — whether that was intended by me or not,” he said. “I believe there is a place for clergy and people of faith in schools, and that is serving as a volunteer. … That is what chaplains are trained to do. We are not licensed, trained or called to serve in secular settings, or as mental health professionals or counselors.”

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Casey Smith
Casey Smith

A lifelong Hoosier, Casey Smith previously reported on the Indiana Legislature for The Associated Press. Internationally, she has reported on water quality across South America. She holds a master’s degree in investigative reporting and narrative science writing from the University of California/Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She previously earned degrees in journalism, anthropology and Spanish from Ball State University, where she now serves as an instructor of journalism.

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