Home Christian News In Texas, Debate Over School Chaplains Escalates School Board Culture Wars

In Texas, Debate Over School Chaplains Escalates School Board Culture Wars

Photo credit: Nick Quan/Unsplash

HOUSTON (RNS) — It’s been more than seven months since the Texas Legislature passed a bill allowing public schools to hire school chaplains, but for the Rev. Dave Welch, his work has just begun. Dining last month at the Taste of Texas, a sprawling restaurant/museum on the outskirts of Houston with 750-pound replica cannons made to resemble those from the Battle of the Alamo bolted to its entryway, the longtime conservative Christian activist outlined his two-pronged plan for what comes next.

“Number one is winning over the leaders currently in the school system, the school boards — or changing them,” said Welch, who runs the Houston Area Pastor Council. “Number two is persuading and winning over enough pastors to see this as a mission field.”

RELATED: More Than 100 Chaplains Urge Texans Not To Hire School Chaplains

Strident rhetoric is nothing new from Welch, a seasoned veteran of the culture wars who was once a national field director for the Christian Coalition, a conservative advocacy group. It also echoes the messaging of the National School Chaplain Association, the activist group that helped push SB 763 — the controversial school chaplains bill — through the Texas Legislature earlier this year and is now primed for a nationwide push.

“As NSCA officers engage state legislators we are energized to know that this school chaplaincy bill will pave the way for spiritual care, support, and Biblical guidance for children, teachers, and staff in public schools throughout many states,” read an email to NSCA supporters, according to The Texas Tribune.

But the idea that public schools could turn into spaces of overt religious recruitment has worried liberals across the Lone Star State ever since Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill into law. Despite objections from outnumbered Democrats in both chambers of the Legislature, the chaplains bill was approved without outlining a chaplain’s role or mandating any specific training requirements. Instead, lawmakers required the state’s 1,200-plus school districts to define those details themselves as they each vote on whether to allow chaplains in their schools by March 2024.

The result has been a heated war of words waged in one of America’s most well-trodden political battlegrounds: school boards. According to locals, the fight over school chaplains has tapped into ongoing power struggles over public education and has pit religious voices against each other, with supporters framing the policy as a way to assist student mental health and detractors blasting it as a Christian nationalist attempt to convert children to a specific form of faith.

Victor Perez. (Photo courtesy of Katy ISD)

To Cameron Samuels, a 2022 graduate from a school in the Katy Independent School District outside of Houston, the chaplains debate is part of a broader faith-fueled fight over local education that began in the aftermath of the pandemic. Speaking to Religion News Service over the phone, Samuels argued that early conservative pushback against mask mandates slowly transitioned into other political efforts, such as opposition to critical race theory, an academic ideology that became a target of conservative ire in 2021.

The trend eventually snowballed, opening the floodgates for an influx of conservative voices on school boards statewide, said Samuels, who heads the activist group Students Engaged in Advancing Texas. Samuels recalled attending a November 2021 Katy ISD school board meeting in which a man named Victor Perez approached the microphone to rail against CRT, decrying it as “a fundamentally racist worldview.”

A few months later, Perez, after endorsements from local Christian magazines, was elected to the Katy ISD board, which he now leads as president. A year later, three more conservative candidates backed by Texans for Educational Freedom — a conservative PAC dedicated to opposing critical race theory “and other anti-American agendas” — were elected to the seven-member board.