Iowa bill would let public schools hire unlicensed chaplains… but unintended consequences may arise

Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott (D-West Des Moines) speaks during an Iowa Senate subcommittee on allowing untrained and uncertified chaplains hold positions in Iowa public schools.

By Ty Rushing

January 24, 2024

Iowa Republican lawmakers advanced a bill out of a subcommittee Tuesday that would allow public school districts to hire chaplains to “provide support, services, and programs for students.” But while the lawmakers heavily implied this was about Christian services coming into public schools, others pointed out that it could just as easily open the door to allowing the Satanic Temple to work directly in those districts.

SSB 3092 and HF 2073 would give school boards the power to hire chaplains or recruit them on a volunteer basis.

Typically, school boards are only in charge of hiring superintendents.

To be a public school chaplain under this legislation, you do not need any certification, expertise, licensure, or professional background and you can be from any faith—although one of the bill’s sponsors alluded to this primarily applying to Christians.

It also does not require students to utilize the chaplain’s service. Wannabe chaplains just have to undergo a background check.

The bill was inspired by similar legislation in Texas. Republican Iowa House Representatives Helena Hayes of New Sharon and Barb Kniff McCulla of Pella went to a conference in Texas with Family Leader lobbyist Chuck Hurley to learn more about the program.

Hayes spoke more about the bill during a Tuesday subcommittee about the Iowa Senate version of it—it advanced to the full committee in a 2-1 vote—where she made the Freudian slip about this legislation particularly being about Christianity.

“This bill is about ministers in the workplace,” Hayes said before recapping the bill. “So I know some here are going to want to challenge what a chaplain is, how that’s defined, and whether or not it’s allowed in public schools.

“I just want to remind a lot of us that here in Iowa, we have chaplains provided in our hospitals, we have them provided … [in] our national guard.”

Hayes touted the chaplain program as a way to provide spiritual guidance to students, improve their mental health and cut down on substance abuse, and as a way to retain teachers.

Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott (D-West Des Moines), a Lutheran minister and a former chaplain found the bill’s premise to be offensive.

“I was a hospital chaplain,” she said. “I spent a year in a credited, clinical pastoral care education program in a hospital 50 to 60 hours a week supervised learning how to be a chaplain because the skills that are required, the professional ethics, the boundaries to understand that a chaplain is not a counselor, they’re not psychologists, they’re not missionaries to proselytize.”

Trone Garriott also noted the risk of having untrained people tend to vulnerable groups.

“There is tremendous potential for harm if a person who is not qualified is in that position,” she said. “For a certified chaplain, they have a board to review their performance to respond to complaints of inappropriate behavior.”

Trone Garriot also called out the Hayes for using “minister” in her initial remarks on the bill.

“The author of this bill referred to the practitioners in this bill as ‘ministers’, which is specifically a Christian and protestant Christian term,” Trone Garriott said. “It seems to be the intent of this bill is to use the resources and institutions of the state to promote a particular religious community or religious content during the required hours of our children’s education.

“That is a violation of that child and their parents’ rights to choose, but it is also a violation of protections within the US Constitution,” she continued.

Reception to the proposal was mixed by other religious leaders who spoke at the hearing with about half supporting and half dissenting.

Keenan Crow, a lobbyist for One Iowa, an LBGTQ advocacy organization, also spoke out against the bill and highlighted the unintended consequences the bill’s supporters likely did not consider.

Crow cited December’s Satanic Panic at the Iowa Capitol after a two-week display by the Satanic Temple of Iowa caused a national outrage in right-wing circles that led to a former Mississippi congressional candidate driving to Iowa to destroy part of the display.

“Guess who has a very robust chaplain program? The Satanic Temple does,” Crow said. “And guess who’s been using it in a number of different ways, including at the US Naval Academy? The Satanic Temple has.

“So if we want Satanic Temple chaplains in our schools, this is the way to get them,” they continued.

  • Ty Rushing

    Ty Rushing is the Chief Political Correspondent for Iowa Starting Line. He is a trail-blazing veteran Iowa journalist, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and co-founder and president of the Iowa Association of Black Journalists. Send tips or story ideas to [email protected] and find him on social media @Rushthewriter.



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