Utah could allow volunteer school chaplains in public neighborhood and charter schools starting in the 2025-2026 school year under legislation endorsed by the House Education Committee.

Under HB514, sponsored by Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, school district or charter school boards could place volunteer chaplains in public schools. The legislation requires chaplains to pass background and reference requirements and complete all training required by the district or charter board, the Utah State Board of Education and state statute.

Stratton said chaplains have played a “very critical and integral role” in the nation’s history.

“The founding fathers understood the importance of the support and guidance chaplains could provide in multiple different ways. We see that reflected today with many of our law enforcement, first responders. Certainly the most notable would be our military that have refined and worked this process,” Stratton said.

HB514 establishes a process for local education agencies, or LEAs, “that would like to draw upon this tradition,” he said.

Thus far, 13 states have introduced school chaplain bills, “so this is not new. But this is unique in that it’s voluntary. It’s local, LEA-driven,” Stratton said.

Jennie Earl, who serves on the Utah State Board of Education but said she was speaking on her own behalf, expressed support for HB514.

“If a parent or employee wants to participate, they can opt into it. I think of health education. I think of mental health screenings. All of these things are proclaimed as opt-in if a parent chooses. I think it’s the same here,” she said.

“I think there’s some positive benefits from this. There may be some complications we run into but I think providing additional resources, and a voluntary basis, to me really makes sense for our schools,” she said.

Others said religious training and support are the purview of parents and children’s respective religious communities.

“We have concerns about the constitutionality of this bill as it runs afoul of separation of church and state principles,” said Ellie Menlove, legislative and policy counsel for ACLU Utah.

“Allowing chaplains in public schools will likely lead to unconstitutional promotion of religion in school settings. We recognize that the student participation is voluntary under the bill, but we worry that allowing chaplains to serve in official positions in schools creates an inherently coercive context for students regardless of the intent. Parents and faith communities should provide religious guidance instead of school chaplains,” Menlove said.

Although the legislation requires school districts and charter schools to develop policies and requirements for school chaplains, some educators raised concerns about how volunteer chaplains would interact with school counselors or the possibility that they would supplant them.

“My concern after reading this bill and hearing about some of the ramifications where it has been put in place in other states is that counselors are losing their jobs because you know they’re paid a salary and these chaplains are coming in as volunteers and I just think the two don’t mix,” said Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay.

Moss, a retired high school teacher, said school counselors and school psychologists provide specialized services such as helping students attain their educational goals and counseling students who are in conflict with their peers. Many have several years of experience and graduate-level education.

“I respect religious counselors as well but right across the street from every high school, junior high, is a place where they go to seminary for many kids. Others that aren’t that religion can go to their spiritual adviser. I just think this is a policy that’s going in the wrong direction for our schools,” Moss said.

Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, said she supported the bill, recalling remarks of a legislative colleague who was a service member who had great appreciation for the service of their chaplain and shared that there were “long lines of these big tough service members who just needed someone to talk to.”

She continued, “If that’s a tool that we can use for kids in the school, then I’m grateful to have that tool.”

Birkeland took issue with the remarks of Rachel Chambliss, executive director of operations for The Satanic Temple, who told the committee that she would “strongly prefer that Utah and other states do not enact bills that mingle religion with state functions.”

Chambliss added, “I’m enthusiastic about the possibility of our satanic clergy contributing to the educational and emotional development of Utah’s youth.”

Birkeland urged Stratton to draft the bill in a way that blocks chaplains who have satanic beliefs from volunteering in schools.

“I don’t want someone who professes their loyalty to Satan in our schools, and I would like to make sure you’re going to work on ensuring that can’t happen,” Birkeland said.

The House Education Committee voted 10-2 to give HB514 a favorable recommendation, sending it to the Utah House of Representatives for further consideration. Moss and House Minority Leader Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, voted no.