Why An Ohio Public School District Said Sorry, Charlie, To Chaplain
When the Rev. Owen Williams, head of the Brookville, Ohio, ministerial association, first heard about a proposal to have a public school chaplain in his area, he thought it might be a good idea.
The initiative, designed to create the first public school chaplaincy program anywhere in the United States, had been packaged as a well-intentioned effort to help local children.
"We were conditionally supportive of the concept when it first came out, thinking it might be good for kids to be able to talk to someone," said Williams, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church. "The ministerial association really got the hard sell because proponents of the plan were told by the school board that they had to get our approval before the plan would even be considered."
But as more information came to Williams' attention about the proposal and its proponents, he soon realized that it could pull his community into a constitutional quagmire. In fact, as research by Church & State now reveals, the effort may have been intended to do that intentionally, as part of the latest Religious Right scheme to inject religion into public schools.
The chaplaincy project in Brookville was the work of three people. The Rev. Howard Lee, a native of nearby Dayton, founded Public School Chaplains for America (PSCA), a group committed to placing chaplains in all public schools. He enlisted the assistance of Lee Behnken, an evangelical Christian musician and active volunteer at PSCA, to spearhead the fledgling organization's first effort. Behnken received assistance from the Rev. David Plummer, a former military chaplain and PSCA "chaplaincy consultant."
It was representatives from the PSCA who approached Brookville clergy for an endorsement of the school chaplaincy plan.
"The ministerial association raised a series of concerns with the idea," Williams said. "But we were told that the plan was perfectly legal and constitutional, and that they had checked with the ACLU and Americans United and that the groups didn't have a problem with it. That turned out to be untrue.
"They had already received letters of support from a number of churches in the area, so the ministerial association gave them a conditional letter of support," Williams continued. "It was being pushed at us hard and things were going so fast, we hardly had time to follow up on the things we were being told. Our letter was conditional on legal issues, accountability concerns, proper training and accreditation and backing from the community. It turned out that they failed on all four."
With support from local clergy, the PSCA approached Brookville school board members to consider the matter in more detail. The board scheduled a hearing for Oct. 22, and about 100 people showed up to talk about the issue.
What was intended to be an opportunity for public discussion, quickly turned into a religiously fired pep rally in support of the chaplaincy effort.
Behnken began the community meeting by leading those in attendance in a prayer "in the name of Jesus," and then proceeded to pitch the need for the program. Citing a perceived threat of violence in schools throughout the United States, Behnken suggested that a chaplaincy program would protect children. According to the Brookville Star, he assured the audience that "there's no problem with [the proposal] and the separation of church and state."
PSCA consultant Plummer told the crowd, "Chaplaincy is not about finding a...