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Oklahoma lawmakers 'shuck' bill to reintroduce initiative to put chaplains in public schools

A high school student at Tulsa Union Public Schools listens to a lecture on ancient cultures.
Beth Wallis
StateImpact Oklahoma
A high school student at Tulsa Union Public Schools listens to a lecture on ancient cultures.

Oklahoma Republican lawmakers "shucked" a bill about law enforcement recording access and replaced it with new language to allow public schools to employ religious chaplains or accept voluntary chaplains to "provide support, services and programs for students."

According to the newly shucked Senate Bill 36, chaplains may not be convicted sex offenders or sex offense defendants, but it doesn’t require any state certifications or background checks. Rep. Kevin West (R-Moore) authored the amendment, which was heard in the House General Government Committee meeting Tuesday.

Oklahoma House Of Representatives Rep. Kevin West (R-Moore)
Shucking allows lawmakers to bypass legislative hurdles like certain committee hearings and deadlines or resurrect defunct bills. A similar billthat would have allowed districts to contract with chaplains to “perform the duties of a school counselor” was filed by Republican Rep. Shane Jett (R-Shawnee) earlier this session and never heard in committee. Last year, Texas became the first state to pass a bill comparable to Jett’s.

Minority Leader Rep. Cyndi Munson (D-Oklahoma City) tried to intervene, pointing to a rule that requires an amendment to be germane to the bill’s written subject. But her appeal was voted down by the committee’s six Republican members against its two Democrat members.

Though West assured the committee chaplains would not evangelize to students, he would not put into law any recourse on chaplains who evangelize. He indicated he may be open to adding a definition of “chaplain” to the bill, which currently does not define the position. Ultimately, he said, for “everybody who really likes local control, this is right up your alley.”

“[Chaplains] are trained to help in many different areas,” West said. “Some of them would be mental, some of them would just be, you know, working through something that’s gone [on] that day. But again, I refer back to… the local school board would get to set what those parameters are … so they would be able to make any of those changes as they saw fit.”

Rep. Jared Deck (D-Norman) pressed West on the lack of defined chaplain qualifications, including specific mental health training. West again responded he wanted to leave those sorts of guidelines up to local school boards.

Asked why not just inject more money into schools to hire more certified counselors, West answered his initiative would open “all available resources,” to solve the school counselor shortage.

“You’re probably going to have a lot higher volunteer participation, which wouldn’t cost any money in that case,” West said.

Munson brought up a section of the Oklahoma Constitution that forbids public money to be appropriated “for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion, or for the use, benefit or support of any priest, preacher, minister, or other religious teacher.” West said the measure did not run afoul of the state constitution in his interpretation.

Deck asked West if he was open to including an “opt-in” requirement for parents in districts that decide to use chaplains. West replied he would be “willing to take a look at that as this moves forward.”

“I’ve always been of the opinion that it should be an ‘opt-in’ — something that parents say they specifically want it,” West said. “The, really, about the only hesitation I would have on this is that the parents would be able to have input through the local school board as to if they did or did not do this.”

In debate, Rep. Jay Steagall (R-Yukon) reminded members of their morning floor session, which was opened by a prayer from an Army chaplain.

“In my opinion, to make an argument that there is this strange and odd separation between religious services being offered and a state entity is quite strange to me because it doesn’t seem to exist when we’re willing to open session with a prayer every day,” Steagall said. “As a military member, I can tell you I’ve been to the chaplain’s office more than once. Never, not once did I ever feel like he was trying to [proselytize] to me.”

Munson reiterated in her debate that using taxpayer dollars to employ religious leaders in schools was “clearly unconstitutional” and admonished bill supporters for their lack of transparency by using the shucking process.

“This is a move to continue to use public tax dollars for religious purposes, and yes, for one specific religion,” Munson said. “And I think we need to be honest about it. Unfortunately, we haven’t been very honest in terms of this entire process in getting this language into this bill today.”

The bill passed through the committee on party lines and can now be heard on the House floor.

Beth Wallis holds a journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma. Originally from Tulsa, she also graduated from Oklahoma State University with a bachelor's degree in music education and a master's degree in conducting performance. She was a band director at a public school for five years.