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Public School Chaplains: A Constitutional Solution
by Herbert W. Titus
First: Banning Religion from Public School: Three Fallacies
Second: Tax Supported Chaplains: Constitutional Legacy
On March 18,1991, the United States Supreme Court granted the Petition for Writ of Certiorari in Lee v. Weisman.111 That case involves the constitutionality of invocations and benedictions delivered by clergy of various faiths in junior and senior high school graduation ceremonies throughout the United States. The parallels between that historic practice and the legislative chaplaincy and various other acts seeking the protection of Divine Providence have not gone unnoticed by the petitioners.112 Given the current composition of the Supreme Court, it would come as no surprise that the Weisman case will provide an excellent opportunity for the Court to renounce the Lemon three-part test and to extend the holding of Marsh. If so, a local school board would be presented a window of constitutional opportunity to implement a chaplaincy program patterned after those upheld in the Marsh and Katcoff cases.
Even if the Court would choose to leave the Lemon test alone or would choose not to extend the Marsh holding to Weisman, a local school board may still take advantage of the Marsh and Katcoff precedents. The task of the board, in either case, would be the same: to put into place a chaplaincy program patterned after those which have already been upheld as constitutional. First, the board should determine the need for such a program to support its educational program. Second, it must define the role to be assumed by the chaplain in that program. Finally, it must build a constitutional case defending a chaplaincy program in the public schools.
The task of any school board, then, in establishing a chaplaincy is to place it squarely within the historic tradition of the legislative and military chaplaincies.
A. Educational Policy and Purpose
Under state law, local school boards have broad powers related to educational policy and programs. The Supreme Court has expressly conceded that these powers include the authority “to establish and apply their curriculum in such a way as to transmit community values,’ and that there is a legitimate and substantial community interest in promoting respect for authority and traditional values be they social, moral, and political.”‘113 The initial task of a school board in establishing a chaplaincy program is to make the findings necessary and the conclusions responsive to their educational mandate.
Former United States Secretary of Education William J. Bennett recently observed that “the three R’s – reading, writing, and arithmetic” were not sufficient to meet the educational challenges of the modern world.114 He recommended that educators in America supplement the three R’s by attending “to the three C’s’: content, character, and choice.”115 Mr. Bennett’s recommendation could well serve a local school board as it addresses how to meet its educational responsibilities.
As for content, the board could find that the texts assigned to students are woefully inadequate because they omit the religious values that have traditionally undergirded the teaching of social, moral, and political truths that are essential to the functioning of a democratic society. For example, the board could examine New York University Professor Paul Vitz’s comprehensive study in which he concludes that religion is either misrepresented, under-represented, or not represented at all in the ordinary texts assigned to be read by public school children.116
The board could also find that what is actually being taught in the classroom is equally neglectful of or biased against these foundational religious values. They could discover that many public school teachers have not received sound instruction in those values. Recent studies have demonstrated that college curricula are becoming increasingly “politicized” away from the traditional “western values”117 that the board may desire to be imparted in the classroom.118
Finally, the board may find a need for special courses or special parts of existing courses in the curriculum needful of an infusion of religious values. The new courses may be part of the elective curricula and could be taught by part-time instructors, or special guest lecturers might be brought in to teach the religious values section of existing courses.
In summary, the board’s concern for the content of its curriculum would include findings of the essential role that religion plays in the truths taught and the necessity of taking steps to impart those values to the children for whose education the board has both authority and responsibility.
As for character, the board could make some general findings regarding the state of discipline in the schools. That there are crises in public school order and discipline in most districts is so well known that it hardly needs documentation.119 Nevertheless, each board should probably make some findings documenting the special disciplinary problems that it faces.
Once such findings are made, it would be incumbent upon the board also to document that it is within its purview to teach character and to utilize religious values in support of that enterprise.. As former Secretary Bennett has pointed out, “Americans have always believed that in education the development of intellect and character go hand in hand.”120 Character is defined as “strength of mind, individuality, independence, moral quality.”121 As Mr. Bennett has further noted, it is difficult to understand how such traits can be developed without teaching a variety of Christian virtues, among them: “thoughtfulness, fidelity, kindness, honesty, respect for law, standards of right and wrong, diligence, fairness, and self-discipline.”122
Such teaching may best be imparted by example, by one’s personal lifestyle reflecting the basic moral virtues. If any lesson has been learned in the past decade or so, it is that character building does not come through guiding children to develop their own values through role playing, games, or other modern methods.123
As for choice, the school board must be mindful that it serves a rather diverse constituency and that such service requires accountability to the parents of the children that are being educated in the schools under its authority. The focal point of this inquiry should be how well the schools are reinforcing the values being imparted by the parents at home. If the board finds a strong contingent of Christian parents who seek the benefits of diversity in the public schools or who do not have the financial wherewithal to send their children to private school, then the board may make findings that such parents should be accommodated with a curriculum and character development program suitable to their needs. Again, as former Secretary Bennett has so well stated: “More than anything else, parents need to be able to choose environments that affirm their principles. They need to find schools where their own values will not be lost or distorted.”124
After making such foundational findings, the board could conclude that the best means available to meet these educational goals is to establish a school board chaplaincy. Such a chaplaincy should combine features drawn from the role of the chaplains in both the military and the legislatures where they have traditionally been appointed.
B. Roles of the Chaplain
In the military, the chaplain has traditionally assumed three roles. As advisor, he instructs “his commander and fellow staff officers on matters pertaining to religion and morality.”125 As counselor, the chaplain administers “a comprehensive program of religious education” and serves “as counselor … to the personnel of the command.”126 As mediator, he plays the role of “friend” assisting in the building and the repair of human relationships so vital to a well-functioning military organization.127
In the legislatures, the chaplain has played primarily the role of spiritual leader. Through regular prayer opening legislative sessions, and pastoral care of the legislators and their families, the legislative chaplains have traditionally inspired, exhorted, and challenged America’s legislative bodies to serve the people who elected them.128
These four roles – advisor, counselor, mediator, and spiritual leader – are as suitable to the needs of public schools, their administrators and teachers, and public school children as they are, and have been, to the armed services and to the legislatures.
1. The Chaplain as Advisor
During the American Revolution, chaplains were looked upon by the nation’s founders as indispensable to the cause. General George Washington knew that his army needed more than men and arms: it needed divine guidance and favor: “The blessings and protection of Heaven are at all times necessary, but especially is it in times of public distress and danger.”129 Thus, Washington continuously and earnestly appealed to Congress to appropriate better salaries to “encourage men of abilities” to serve as military chaplains.130
Indeed, it was the American clergy who instilled the colonial war effort with fervor. Not surprisingly, members of the clergy and chaplaincy became most odious to the British who thought them to be the instigators of the rebellion.131 J. T. Headley, in his historical account of the role of the chaplains and clergy during the Revolution, lauded the military chaplains as “[m]en of learning and culture . . . looked up to for advice and counsel … [and] praise[d] … throughout the land, for their integrity, ability and patriotism.”132
Obviously, the American clergy who played this key role at the time of this nation’s founding did not embrace a pacifist theology. But they were not “war mongers” either. While they taught consistent with the goals and objectives of the war effort, they gave transcendent meaning to that effort, carefully articulating the inalienable principles of liberty and. when suppressed by a tyrant. the justifications for taking up arms to preserve those liberties.133
Today, military chaplains continue to play this vital role in the military, with commanders and soldiers alike. War demands purpose and justification. Military success is fostered by moral and ethical convictions which, in turn, are fundamentally religious. The recent Persian Gulf War clearly demonstrated that things have not changed in America as the country was reminded again and again that America’s war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a “just cause.” America’s fighting men and women, typified by their Commanding General Norman Schwarzkopf, invoked the name of God and their love for country and freedom as reasons for their having gone to battle.134
This same inspired fervor, sense of duty, moral integrity, and pursuit of excellence found in those who go to war should also carry over into education. How long will an army fight without a clear moral purpose? How long will a teacher teach or a child learn without such a purpose? A chaplain, properly trained and equipped, is prepared to give the necessary advice regarding the reasons and rules of warfare and in the reasons and foundational principles of truth.
As advisor, then, the chaplain’s role in education will focus on the first of Secretary Bennett’s “C’s,” content. He will provide counsel, consistent with the goals and objectives set by the educational authorities, as to the relationship of religion to the curriculum of the school. This advice may range from the purpose of education – “ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free”135 – to the foundational Biblical principles underpinning each subject matter taught and each discipline studied.
2. The Chaplain as Counselor
Chaplains who served under General Washington during the Revolution were a great comfort to him and to his men for it was often the clergy who “sustained the courage of the people.”136 Today, this role of counselor has become the primary mission of the American military chaplain. In this regard the Army, itself, has described the duties of the chaplain “as analogous to those performed by clergymen in civilian life.”137 The significance of this should not be underestimated. As Judge Mansfield observed in his opinion sustaining the constitutionality of the military chaplaincy program:
The problem of meeting the religious needs of Army personnel is compounded by the mobile, deployable nature of our armed forces, who must be ready on extremely short notice to be transported … to distant parts of the world for combat duty in fulfillment of our nation’s international defense commitments. . . . In the opinion of top generals … , unless chaplains were made available in such circumstances the motivation, morale and willingness of soldiers to face combat would suffer immeasurable harm and our national defense would be weakened accordingly.138
In the recent Gulf War, the trauma normally experienced only by the soldier and his immediate family spread to America’s school children. Educators dispatched psychologists to advise teachers and families on how to deal with the psychological and emotional needs of the children, especially of those whose fathers or mothers had been called to the Gulf.139 Some of these experts suggested role playing or puppetry to help the children to cast their worries and fears into symbolic form thereby easing the tension.140 A principal of a public school in Cleveland, Ohio was reported to have instructed her teachers to answer children’s questions about religion and God should tragedy strike.141 How ironic that the military provided chaplains to answer those questions if raised by an adult soldier, but the schools were not similarly prepared to respond to such questions if raised by that soldier’s primary age son or daughter in the public school.142
War is not the only tragedy that school children face. Sudden deaths of loved ones, tragic school bus accidents, and assaults by crazed gunmen may strike without notice. The need for ready access to counseling in such emergencies is evident.
But counseling extends beyond emergency circumstances. In the military, chaplains are available to soldiers facing the daily demands of life: “financial hardships, personality conflicts, and drug, alcohol or family problems.”143 Currently, counseling for such matters is available in almost every school system in America. Yet, many times students are counseled in a way contrary to the religious faith of their parents.144 Moreover, as former Secretary William Bennett has so well documented, many a public school, having become “a desert of moral relativism,”145 offers no counseling whatsoever:
[I]n 1985 the New York Times ran an article quoting New York area educators proclaiming that “they deliberately avoid trying to tell students what is ethically right and wrong.” The article told of one counseling session involving fifteen high school juniors and seniors.
In the course of that session the students concluded that a fellow student had been foolish to return $1,000 she found in a purse at school …. [W]hen the students asked the counselor’s opinion, “He told them he believed the girl had done the right thing, but that, of course, he would not try to force his values on them. If I come from the position of what is right and wrong,’ he explained, then rm not their counselor.”‘ Now, once upon a time, a counselor offered counsel, and he knew that an adult does not form character in the young by taking a stance of neutrality toward questions of right and wrong or by merely offering “choices” and “options.”146
As counselor, then, the school chaplain would attend to Bennett’s second “C,” the development of character. Instruction in good character has long been the goal of American public education and religion has long been the hallmark of that effort. Thus. Thomas Mott, then Superintendent of the Richmond, Indiana public schools, exhorted teachers attending the 1906 National Education Association convention:
We must look upon man in the full roundness of character . . . as the ideal product of the highest educational process. The end must ever be character, based upon true habits of moral conduct, and a strong religious faith. * * *
. . . In the conflict of life, when in the midst of success or failure, temptation, despair, or sorrow; when the battle of life is strong between the forces of good and evil, the human heart finds little aid in questions of expediency, utility, or custom, but intuitively reaches upward in hope of aid and inspiration from an infinite and all-loving, all-powerful God and Father.
It is significant that religious and moral instruction should be so often joined together in our thought of educational processes. In the very nature of the development of personal character, they are necessarily involved.147
3. The Chaplain as Mediator
In the military, the chaplain is a member of two institutions, the military, in which he holds the rank of an officer, and the church, in which he has been ordained as a minister.148 As a member of two such disparate groups, the chaplain is the natural choice to mediate disputes that might arise within the military, itself. This role is especially important in matters of discipline where
the chaplain, because of his close relationship with the soldiers in his unit, often serves as a liaison between the soldiers and their commanders, advising the latter of racial unrest, drug or alcohol abuse, and other problems affecting the morale and efficiency of the unit, and helps to find solutions.149
In other words, the chaplain serves the military as an ombudsman. He is perceived by soldiers and their officers as “different,” with a higher allegiance than the role owed by an ordinary officer and with special skills in mediating disputes.
In a system of compulsory education financed by tax revenues, public schools are not the first choice for many parents. Yet as Secretary Bennett has noted, his third “C” – choice – is crucial to the success of public schools. Nevertheless, “in the elementary and secondary levels, … there is choice for so few.”150
Given the economic realities that limit parental choice, tensions inevitably arise between public school authorities and families “caught” in the public school net. Many of those families have deep religious convictions that they perceive to be undermined and disrespected by their children’s teachers. While a mediator may not be able to resolve some of these disputes, a chaplain with commitments to a denomination like that of the parents could explain the families’ concerns to school authorities and, perhaps, propose workable solutions. Without some mediating structure, clashes between such families and public school authorities will continue to be handled by lawyers in the courts.
4. The Chaplain as Spiritual Leader
One of the main purposes of the chaplaincy, both in the military and in the legislature, has been prayer. As a nation, we have historically been called by our Presidents to prayer. That tradition was invoked most recently by President George Bush when, upon announcing the start of the ground war in the Persian Gulf War, he appealed to the American people:
Tonight as this coalition of countries seeks to do that which is right and just, I ask only that all of you stop what you were doing and say a prayer for all the coalition forces ….
May God bless and protect each and every one of them and may God bless the United States of America.151
The American people responded readily to this appeal when called to prayer, and actual prayers themselves appeared on billboards, bumper stickers, and business signs. Truly, these became indelible evidence upon the minds of every American that her war effort was being undergirded with prayer.
Yet public schools, charged with “inculcating,. America’s children with the values of a democratic society, were required to be neutral on prayer. The nation’s legacy of prayer laid down in the appeal of the Declaration of Independence for the “protection of divine Providence., could not be honored in the very place where that legacy is required by law to be taught.
Without question, America’s school children ought not be deprived of the opportunity to pray as they undertake their civic duty, preparation for citizenship, while America’s President, members of the House and Senate, and her military leaders are led in prayer by chaplains employed to assist them in the discharge of their civic duties.
C. Constitutional Defense
If the constitutionality of a proposal to establish public school chaplaincy depended upon meeting the Supreme Court’s three-part Lemon test, then it would doubtless fail.152 As pointed out above, however, the Supreme Court has expressly refused to apply that test in assessing the constitutionality of legislative chaplains.153 Moreover, several Justices have expressed .serious reservations about the continued vitality of the Lemon rule.154
The first line of constitutional defense of a public school chaplaincy program would be to rest that defense squarely upon the court precedents upholding the legislative and military chaplaincies. Unless those chaplaincies are dismissed as historical anomalies, a public school chaplaincy patterned after them should survive an establishment clause challenge.
A defense based upon such analogous precedent, however, is probably not sufficient without addressing two crucial factors that are present in the military and legislative contexts, but allegedly not in the public schools. First, there is no historic chaplaincy institution or office in the public schools parallel to that in the military and in the legislatures. Second, public schools involve children, most of whom are not there by choice, whereas the military and legislatures are composed of adults all of whom are there by choice.
While it is true that the military and legislative chaplaincies enjoy an unbroken historic continuity from colonial times to the present day, it would be a mistake to assume that chaplains are foreign to education. The Oxford English Dictionary definition of chaplain includes a clergyman assigned to serve a school or college along with a legislative chamber or regiment.155
Throughout America’s history clergymen have served as chaplains to schools, colleges, and universities. More important, clergymen have served as teachers in American schools in a variety of subjects not limited to theology. Indeed, clergymen were the first to serve in that capacity in the United States. After all, education in the eyes of most of America’s founders belonged to the family and to the church, not the state. Not surprisingly, then, in the early days of the American Republic, there was no occasion to provide by law for chaplains for the public schools; those schools, if any existed, were operated by the clergy, themselves.156
In the nineteenth century when the movement for establishing a system of tax-supported public schools began, there was no effort to divorce the new educational system from religion; rather public school proponents supported the adoption of a system that integrated a nondenominational Protestant religious ethic into the curriculum. The teachers, themselves, were expected to bring a nonsectarian, nondenominational religion into their classrooms without having to call upon the clergy except for special occasions. Chaplaincies were not established, not because of some doctrinal commitment of separation of church and state, but because every teacher would play the role of a chaplain so there was no need of a special office. This interrelationship between educator and religion continued unabated even after the Civil War with only one proviso – that the system of public schools be “free from Sectarian control.”157
Freedom from sectarian control did not mean exclusion of prayer, Bible reading, or other religious teaching. Those activities continued under the oversight of the public school authorities until the Supreme Court made in 1962 the first of a series of rulings excluding prayer and Bible reading from the public schools. Speaking for the Court, Justice Hugo Black emphasized in his majority opinion that a nondenominational prayer composed by the New York Board of Regents violated the most basic principle of the establishment clause, namely, “that … it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by government.”158 While subsequent cases did not involve state-composed prayers or state-written devotions, all involved direct participation by the state’s educational authorities. Therefore. the Court readily found that students could not freely choose to absent themselves from the religious exercises when they were such an integral part of a compulsory educational system.
The point to be made here is that the interposition of a chaplain or chaplains could have made the difference in what otherwise was an inherently coercive atmosphere. The chaplain, by definition, has a limited role. He serves as advisor and counselor. not as decision maker and implementer. Moreover, he is a mediator who serves both the schools and the families as reflected in his dual appointment both as employee of the state and appointee of his church. When religious activities are assigned to the chaplain, the state’s imprimatur on such activities is lessened and, consequently, those who choose not to participate are more free to make that choice.159
If the establishment clause means that the government may not use its power to coerce religion,160 that noncoercion principle may be met by the creation of a chaplaincy for the public schools so long as the chaplain is endowed only with responsibilities like his counterparts in the military and in the legislature as proposed above.161 The fact that the schools have failed to adopt the chaplaincy in the past should not preclude a school from modifying its practices now in order to meet the strictures of the Constitution.
Some would contend, however, that the establishment noncoercion principle cannot be met because of the “highly structured environment” of the primary and secondary schools.162 Implicit in this argument is the notion that children at the primary and secondary levels are just too impressionable and too susceptible to peer pressure to allow for any religious activity even under the auspices and supervision of a chaplain.
The argument from impressionability or susceptibility fails to take into account the fact that exclusion of religious activity from public schools affects negatively those students whose lifestyle away from school includes trusting and acknowledging God’s goodness and protection in everything they do. Moreover, it fails to acknowledge that the very purpose of education is to “inculcate” values in impressionable and susceptible children. At bottom then, the argument emphasizing the impressionability and susceptibility of children presupposes that one can be “neutral” about religion which, as pointed out above,163 is impossible.
The constitutionally correct response to the impressionability or susceptibility issue is the one endorsed by the Supreme Court in Zorach v. Clausen.164
We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being. We guarantee the freedom to worship as one chooses. We make room for as wide a variety of beliefs and creeds as the spiritual needs of man deem necessary. We sponsor an attitude on the part of government that shows no partiality to any one group and that lets each flourish according to the zeal of its adherents and the appeal of its dogma. When the state encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events to sectarian needs, it follows the best of our traditions. For it then respects the religious nature of our people and accommodates the public service to their spiritual needs.165
This accommodation principle serves three essential purposes, as pointed out in a 1987 issue of the Harvard Law Review:
First, and most important, it attempts to encourage and promote the free exercise of religion in civic life. Second, it strives to recognize and commemorate the importance of religion in America’s historical traditions and cultural heritage. Third, it serves the state’s interest in promoting social cohesion and community identity by admitting shared symbols and values into the civic sphere.166
This three-fold objective is especially important when applied to a system of tax-supported public education dedicated to the inculcation of fundamental values necessary to the maintenance of a democratic political system. Total exclusion of religion, as the Lemon test commands, creates an atmosphere of unreality as well as one of hostility to those students and their families whose lives center upon God and the Holy Bible. No argument based upon “peer pressure” or “immaturity” ought to dissuade the courts from finding a school board chaplaincy program as a constitutional accommodation of religion so long as students whose lives do not center on God or the Scriptures are not required to participate in the accommodating activities.167
Finally, any attempt to distinguish the military from public education on the grounds that people voluntarily join the armed forces whereas school children must go to school should be rejected. The constitutionality of the military chaplaincy has not turned on the existence or nonexistence of an all-volunteer military force. During the times of military conscription, the chaplaincy was not been suspended. Indeed, the military draft has usually been employed by the nation in times of war, the very kind of crisis in which the military authorities have found chaplains most needful.
Moreover, the compulsory education laws do not require children to attend public schools; nor could such laws constitutionally command such attendance.168 While economic circumstances may be the primary influence for many families that choose public schools for their children, economic factors are equally pressing upon many who choose to join the armed forces.169
In summary, there are no differences of constitutional significance between the role of the chaplain proposed for the public schools and that currently played in the military and in the legislatures. And there are no differences of significance between the place of children in the public schools and that of the soldier in the military. Therefore, the case precedents affirming the constitutionality of legislative and military chaplaincies are equally supportive of a chaplaincy in the public schools.
Throughout this article, I have critiqued and utilized arguments without challenging the conventional premise that the state has jurisdiction to educate the children. I have argued elsewhere that the establishment clause, if it is applicable to the states, prohibits the establishment of a tax-supported public education system.170 So long as the courts continue to assume that the states have jurisdiction to establish such a system of education, they should cease all efforts to insure religious neutrality, eliminate religious indoctrination, and stem both ╖ religious anarchy and totalitarianism in the public schools. Such goals are not only impossible to achieve, but they are not commanded by the Constitution. To the contrary, public school programs that accommodate the role that religion plays in American life should be found constitutional so long as they encourage, but do not coerce, religious activities and principles in a larger educational enterprise. Chaplaincy programs designed to help accomplish this objective would meet the legal and constitutional responsibilities of the local school board.