Indiana lawmakers drop proposal to allow chaplains in public schools

A large tan stone building with a green dome roof and flags at the top with a blue sky in the background.
Indiana Capitol building on Thurs., Nov. 16, 2023 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Elaine Cromie / Chalkbeat)

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Update: The Indiana legislative session ended on March 8, 2024. Here are the education bills that did and didn’t pass.

Indiana lawmakers have cut a proposal that would have permitted chaplains to work in public schools — part of a compromise on a bill allowing students to leave school for religious instruction at their parents’ request.

They returned House Bill 1137 to its original form, which requires principals to allow students to attend off-campus religious instruction if parents request it. Indiana law currently leaves the decision to principals’ discretion.

The controversial language in House Bill 1137 would have allowed chaplains to serve as counselors offering only secular support to students, unless the students’ parents gave permission for nonsecular guidance.

Proponents said it would put willing members of the community in schools to counsel students on a volunteer or paid basis. But critics said the proposal would have violated the establishment clause in the First Amendment, which forbids the government from establishing a religion or favoring one religion over another. Some also said that chaplains didn’t necessarily have the training to work in schools.

Multiple changes to the bill prompted it to go to a bipartisan, bicameral conference committee, which cut the language in the final days of the 2024 legislative session as a compromise to pass the bill through both chambers.

House Bill 1137 briefly featured an amendment to recognize excellent civics education, which was later removed by Senate lawmakers. They instead added a provision to allow chaplains to serve in public schools after their bill containing the language, Senate Bill 50, failed to move forward in the House.

Both chambers must now accept the conference committee’s report. If they don’t, the bill dies.

Lawmakers could still insert the language on chaplains into other bills, as several remain in progress in conference committees.

The 2024 session must adjourn by March 14, but could end sooner.

Aleksandra Appleton covers Indiana education policy and writes about K-12 schools across the state. Contact her at aappleton@chalkbeat.org.

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