MONTGOMERY — The House Education Policy Committee approved legislation on Wednesday allowing public schools to employ or accept volunteer chaplains upon approval from a board of education or charter school governing body.

The bill passed the committee with a narrow margin after several Republican lawmakers expressed concern over religious or denominational discrimination on behalf of any chaplain.

House Bill 316 (HB316), sponsored by State Rep. Mark Gidley (R-Hokes Bluff), would authorize a public school or public charter school to employ or accept as a volunteer a campus chaplain to provide services, provided the campus chaplain previously undergoes a criminal history background information check. Registered chaplains previously convicted of sex offenses are immediately disqualified.

Gidley presented the bill before the committee, addressing what he believes to be the benefits of school chaplains.

"Every facet of our society has chaplains. We have them in the United States Congress. We have them in our military. We have them in our hospitals. We have them for our policemen. We have them for our firefighters. We have them for our hospice organizations. All of these have chaplains that offer services of emotional help, mental help, and, in the right context, even spiritual help. We have a group of people that are on the frontline just as much as our military and our firefighters are, and that's our teachers and administrators; they're on the front line every day. Many of them suffer with PTSD and traumatic things just like people in other areas do. I think it's nothing but right that offer them the same assistance, help and support that we offer other areas of our society."

Gidley also addressed what he believed to be "false information" surrounding the legislation, reiterating that the chaplains would focus on school staff, not students.

"There's this false narrative that this is somehow going to replace school counselors," he explained. "That is absolutely wrong, erroneous, false and absolutely ludicrous."

"The other false narrative is this is going to indoctrinate our children," Gidley continued. "Anybody that knows a chaplain knows they are trained to know how to deal exactly with issues as they arise; they know how to handle that. If a hospice chaplain goes to a home, somebody's in an end-of-life situation, but they are not open to spiritual council, the chaplain knows how to handle that without imposing anything on them. This is about emotional support. It's about mental support. And it is also directed not toward our students, but toward our teachers, our administrators and those that would work in our school system."

The bill received some pushback from lawmakers who expressed concern over the qualifications of trained chaplains and the potential for excluding other religions or Christian denominations.

"Our military tries their best to cover all religions, and that's my concern that a school system cannot cover all religions," said State Rep. Frances Holk-Jones (R-Foley).

She continued, "The social workers and counselors, I just feel, are the ones that are trained in our school system, and I just feel like that's where we need to spend more."

State Rep. Ivan Smith (R- Clanton) asked what denomination the chaplains would be if they're approved by the local school board, saying there was potential to "bias someone against lots of faiths."

"They're all going to be from a chaplaincy program," Gidley responded. "There's not going to be a tag on them because I know chaplains that wear all kinds of tags when they step out of that role."

"We're focusing on the ministry aspect rather than on the support aspect, and that's what this is. Somebody who is a trained chaplain knows how to separate those issues and deal with the issue that's there," he continued.

The bill received bipartisan support from lawmakers in the committee. State Rep. Kenneth Paschal (R-Pelham), an Army veteran, endorsed the legislation, speaking of his experiences with chaplains in the military.

State Rep. Susan DuBose (R-Hoover) also voiced support for the legislation.

"If we trust our school boards to hire principals and teachers every day, why wouldn't we trust them to also select a volunteer to be there as support for our teachers who are adults?" DuBose said. These are people that know they are not being taken advantage of. They know whether they can walk up and talk to somebody or not."

State Rep. TaShina Morris (D-Montgomery) detailed a personal story about a hospital chaplain who comforted her family in a challenging moment.

"It was nothing dealing with your faith," Morris said. "He didn't bring up anything dealing with the Bible or anything. He was just there for support. He listened to what we had to say, gave out some hugs, and it was a much needed support at that time."

The bill passed after a voice vote, with a scattered handful of "no" votes. The bill now goes to the House floor for a vote.

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