Satanic Temple ‘looks forward to participating’ if Florida school chaplain bill passes

As legislation that would allow volunteer chaplains in Florida public schools nears passage, The Satanic Temple says it’s looking forward to the opportunity. 

“Any opportunity that exists for ministers or chaplains in the public sector must not discriminate based on religious affiliation,” wrote The Satanic Temple’s director of ministry, who goes by Penemue Grigori, in an email.

“Our ministers look forward to participating in opportunities to do good in the community, including the opportunities created by this bill, right alongside the clergy of other religions.”

The House has already approved its version of the legislation (HB 931). The Senate bill (SB 7044) got through its final committee earlier this week, setting it up for a final vote in that chamber.

But First Amendment advocates and others already are questioning how local school districts, if they choose to do so, will put the chaplain program into practice without running afoul of concerns over religious freedom.

What is the Satanic Temple?

The measure, geared at helping address students’ mental health needs, authorizes school districts and charter schools to adopt a policy “to provide support, services, and programs to students.”  

It requires parental consent before a student meets with a chaplain and says they must undergo background checks first. It also mandates that districts publish a list of the chaplains on its website and for school principals to inform parents about them.

Other than that, most of the rollout of the legislation is left to local school officials. But one thing they couldn’t do is exclude religions, says Ryan Jayne of the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s lobbying arm. That includes satanic ones.

“I think there is a 100% chance you see satanic chaplains, and also of course other religious minorities that the majority-Christian population might not be a fan of,” said Jayne, the senior policy counsel for the FFRF Action Fund. “The Satanic Temple is a church, whether people like it or not. And the idea that you can just exclude a disfavored minority religion from a bill, it just runs straight into the First Amendment.”

When asked by a reporter if she had concerns about satanic chaplains, bill sponsor Sen. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, said she did. 

“But I think that as soon as we get in the middle of defining what is religion and what is not, and whether or not someone can be available and be on a list, we start to run up to constitutional problems,” Grall said. 

“So I think that us making sure that it’s open and available to anybody who wants to put themselves through the background screening, and let parents know they’re available for that service, is the best way to go,” she added. 

What is The Satanic Temple?

The Satanic Temple, which the IRS recognizes as a tax-exempt church, does not actually worship Satan. Nor does it believe Satan exists.

“The Satanic Temple believes that religion can, and should, be divorced from superstition,” it says on its website. It encourages “effective and artful protest.” 

For more than a decade, the organization has captured attention and controversy in its advocacy for the First Amendment and religious freedom.

In 2014, Florida authorities took measures to restrict holiday exhibits in the state Capitol following an incident in which a woman damaged a Satanic Temple display, described as a “diorama depicting Lucifer descending into the flames of hell.”

The Iowa chapter of the group made headlines late last year after it erected a small altar in the state’s Capitol. Even more media coverage came after a Mississippi man destroyed it – and was later charged with a hate crime.

DeSantis, who was still running for president at the time, said he would help pay the legal fund of the man, who was a former U.S. Navy fighter pilot and a former GOP Mississippi House candidate.

“Satan has no place in our society and should not be recognized as a ‘religion’ by the federal government,” he said on a post on X, formerly known as Twitter. DeSantis’ office did not respond this week to a media request about the chaplain bill. 

The Satanic Temple has congregations across the nation and world, including in Florida. Grigori said the organization had been working on a “rigorous and meaningful” chaplaincy even before the legislation, adding that the bill “obviously opens up more activities for our chaplains.”

Is Florida’s school chaplain bill itself constitutional? 

Florida isn’t the first state to take up such legislation. A similar bill passed in Texas last year, and a slew of states are now looking to do the same, raising concerns about the First Amendment and the separation of church and state.

In Iowa, the state chapter of The Satanic Temple told lawmakers it would be “happy to engage children” if they passed their chaplain legislation. The bill proposal died.

One of the reasons for the widespread state interest: The National School Chaplain Association, which helped craft the Texas law, is pushing it in other states.

It’s a subsidiary of nonprofit organization called Mission Generation Inc., which describes itself as a “Christian relief and development organization involved in church planning, leadership to give students, teachers and parents the tools they need to make quality life decisions based on a personal relationship with Jesus and the leading of the holy spirit.”

Grall said she’s never spoken with someone from the association, but noted she believed Florida’s bill was “very different” from other states’. (In Texas, school districts are required to vote on whether to have chaplains.) The House sponsors did not respond to a media request.

The Texas law, meanwhile, remains unhampered by legal challenges. But Jayne from the FFRF Action Fund says that may change. 

“We’re going to have to wait and see which school districts cross the line constitutionally, and, in Texas, some of them definitely will,” Jayne said. “FFRF, among other organizations, is ready to file lawsuits as soon as that happens.” Under the law, Texas school districts have to vote by March 1 on chaplain programs.

But Jayne, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, has concerns with not just the implementation but the language itself of Florida’s bill. 

“I think the bill raises several constitutional concerns as it’s written, but the implementation will really be what we need to look at,” said Kara Gross, the ACLU of Florida’s legislative director and senior policy counsel. “Just because it requires parental consent or a chaplain to provide services to a particular student does not relieve the public schools and the school districts from the duty to refrain from promoting religion to students.”

Jayne said “potentially a major issue” is his belief that school districts having to select chaplains – and even listing them on their websites – steps into government endorsement of religion: “I don’t see any way that a public school could implement this program without running into serious legal problems.”

Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, brushed aside the legal concerns at a press conference last week. “Any time someone doesn’t like a bill … the first thing they say is, ‘it’s unconstitutional,’ ” she said. “That’s the default objection.”

Hiram Sasser, executive general counsel for the religious liberties legal organization First Liberty Institute, said the bill was “perfectly constitutional.”

“Chaplain programs have existed in lots of different forms at different government functions since the founding of our nation,” Sasser said, adding that it’s been strengthened further by recent Supreme Court decisions. “It’s a long standing and widely-accepted historical practice.”

Chaplains have been and are used in a multitude of ways for government functions, including in the military, prisons and legislative bodies. And Sasser said the legislation would be especially meaningful to “students of minority faiths.” 

“If you’re Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist or of (another) minority faith, and you’re in a school district that’s a predominantly Christian environment, it can get a little lonely,” Sasser said. 

What’s the need for chaplains? 

Supporters of the bill say it comes from concerns about the mental health of students and the need for more school counselors.

“Our schools are asking us for more counselors and more help,” said Republican state Rep. Adam Anderson of Palm Harbor, minutes before the House passed the measure. “For parents who raise their kids on the foundation of their faith, access to a school chaplain will help them maintain a more consistent environment for their children … It will help relieve the overworked school counselors in our schools.”

The House bill passed by a 89-25 vote, with the ‘no’ votes coming from Democrats. The bill did get some Democratic support, including from Jacksonville Rep. Kimberly Daniels, a bill sponsor. (Daniels sponsored a bill in 2018 that required “In God We Trust” to be prominently displayed in schools.)

House Democrats raised constitutional concerns, warned about controversial groups sending chaplains and criticized how the only requirement under the bill for a chaplain was that they passed a background check. They filed multiple amendments that would have put more oversight and requirements on the position. They all failed.

“We as a state Legislature are embracing and endorsing that an unlicensed person can deal with our most vulnerable children,” said Rep. Robin Bartleman, D-Weston. “By putting people in a room with a child who do not have a skill set to deal with serious mental health issues, link them to services, get them to a crisis response team, this is a very dangerous precedent.” 

Five Democrats also voted against the Senate bill in its last committee, despite bill sponsor Grall telling lawmakers that local school leaders could create their own requirements for chaplains.

“You’re going to be on a list and the entire community is going to see that you’re on that list,” Grall added. “The community is vetting what these chaplains are and the leaders that they are in the community.” Additionally, she said parents, who as a result will know chaplains’ reputations, can decide whether their child can see them.

Article can be found on Herald