Ron DeSantis Is Letting Religious Chaplains Roam Public Schools

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Ron DeSantis Is Letting Religious Chaplains Roam Public Schools

It’s no big deal, he said.

When Florida Governor Ron DeSantis last week signed a
bill

allowing religious chaplains into public schools, he insisted he was only
returning public schools to their “original intent.” “It used to be, I mean,
when education in the United States first started, every school was a religious
school. That was just part of it. Public schools were religious schools,” he
claimed.
“I think what we’re doing is restoring the sense of purpose that our Founding Fathers
wanted to see in education.”

In reality, the actual Founders—not the ones DeSantis
and other MAGA politicians like to imagine—never could agree on how American
public schools should teach religious ideas. One historical fact is clear,
however: They would have been horrified at what DeSantis said after enacting
the law.

This is not only a Florida problem. The new law is a
copy of a 2023
law

in Texas. Fourteen other states are considering something similar. The law
allows religious ministers to volunteer in public schools to counsel students. The
law does take some steps to ensure that students aren’t forced to, say, pray at
school: School districts don’t have to participate, and if they do, they have
to publish a list of chaplains and their religious denominations; and parents have
to opt in to the program.

Yet the fundamental problem remains. The program
smashes through the wall between church and school, and it’s patently
unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has ruled in cases like 1948’s McCollum
v. Champaign
that public schools could not invite
preachers in. DeSantis seems to be banking on the Supreme Court’s conservative
majority to back this norm-breaking law—a safe bet, given the number
of court opinions in recent years
that have allowed religion into public
schools, including a 2020 decision that concluded
that leaving religious preachers out of public schools was a kind of “discrimination.”

To make the situation even worse, DeSantis is wrapping
his self-proclaimed opposition to discrimination in layers of religious
discrimination. When one religious group announced its willingness to participate
in the school chaplain program, DeSantis glibly spurned centuries of American
tradition. He happily did the exact thing that the real Founders worried about
most. Without blinking, with either utter ignorance or shocking shamelessness,
DeSantis trashed the Founders’ vision of religious liberty.     

Here’s what happened: As they have done with other
cases involving religion and public schools, the Satanic Temple said it would
gladly send chaplains into Florida’s public schools as soon as the new law took
effect. These Satanists are not actual Satan-worshippers, even though they
have legal status as a church
, but rather a secularist
group, hoping, in
their words
, “to provide a safe and inclusive
alternative to the religious clubs that use threats of eternal damnation to
convert school children to their belief system.”

DeSantis took the bait. He
announced
that no Satanists would ever participate in the
chaplain program. Why not? Because Satanism, DeSantis intoned, “is not a
religion.” And with that statement, DeSantis had the Founding Fathers rolling
in their graves. DeSantis’s declaration was exactly the kind of thing they took
pains to forbid.

When it came to religion in public schools, they
didn’t agree on much else. Some prominent Founders, like Philadelphia’s
Benjamin Rush, thought American public schools could only fulfill their mission
if they inculcated children with religion. And not just any religion—Rush
insisted
in 1786 that schools should teach evangelical
Protestant Christianity, “the religion of JESUS CHRIST.”

Other Founders disagreed. Thomas Jefferson imagined a
flourishing system of free public schools for white children. His
public schools
, however, would explicitly replace “the
Bible and Testament” with “the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European
and American History.” Some founders went even further. Noah Webster, the
textbook and dictionary author, purged religious language from his early
schoolbooks. Instead of the old Puritan line that had taught earlier
generations their alphabet—“A. In Adam’s Fall, We sinned all”—Webster put in a
secular one: “A. Was an Apple-pie made by the cook.”

For DeSantis or anyone to say, then, that the Founding
Fathers wanted religious public schools is simply false, a MAGA delusion. There
were, however, some general principles upon which the Founders tended to agree.
For one thing, they felt that public schools had to teach children how to be
moral citizens, and that might include teaching religious ideas—but schools could
never teach any one religion as the
American religion. The word they used at the time was “non-sectarian,” and they
meant that the goal of public schools was to make moral, thoughtful citizens, not better Presbyterians or Baptists
or Catholics.

Samuel Knox might have captured this sentiment best.
Knox is not as widely remembered today as Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Rush,
but for the founding generation, his prize-winning 1795
essay
was often considered the best description of the goals for truly
American public schools. As Knox put it, public schools had to “separate the
pursuits of science and literary knowledge from that narrow restriction and
contracted influence of peculiar religious opinions.”

The reason for this was clear. The Founders worried
that their new government might fall into the trap of the decrepit European
monarchies. Indeed, the very first constitutional amendment started with a
clear statement of their concern: “Congress shall make no law respecting an
establishment of religion.” As the First Amendment specified, Americans were free
to practice any religion, but government leaders could never tell them which
religion to practice. The Founders hoped to prevent elected politicians from using
state-sponsored religion to agitate the populace into a European-style frenzy. As
John
Adams explained later
in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, “People
cannot whip and crop, and pillory and roast, as yet in the U.S.? If they could they would.”

DeSantis is doing his best to bring the Founders’
nightmares to life. He is, of course, distorting the historical nuance of
the role of religion in America’s early schools; as historians such as Carl
F. Kaestle
and Benjamin Justice
have shown, for all their talk about schools, the founders didn’t actually
establish a public education system. It took a later
generation
to create modern public school systems, and when they did, they
did not include chaplains. Even worse, by ruling out the Satanic Temple as “not
a religion,” Ron DeSantis is seizing the right to define religion in schools—exactly
what the Founders sought to prohibit. When there are some religions that count
and others that don’t, we are perilously close to the pillory and the roast, to
government-directed hunts against heresy.

Perhaps worst of all,
DeSantis and other MAGA politicians are wrapping their anti-American policies
in the mantle of a fraudulent and self-serving Americanism. By invoking the
blessing of the Founding Fathers for this unconstitutional school law—one that Adams
and Jefferson would have abhorred—DeSantis is not only insulting the
intelligence of today’s Americans, he is also insulting those Founders
themselves. 

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