The Freedom From Religion Foundation is urging the Fresno Unified School District to suspend an unconstitutional chaplaincy program it operates in partnership with the local police department.
According to recently obtained records, Fresno Unified School District pays up to $65,000 a year to the Fresno Police Chaplaincy in order to bring chaplains into Fresno Unified School District elementary schools, a program called Resilience in Student Education (RISE). These chaplains are tasked with “building character” in younger students and serving as “mentors.” An advertisement for the program boasts that it reaches 2,100 first grade students each week. We understand that the current program is scheduled to run through 2022. Additionally, during the 2016-2017 school year, the district reportedly paid the police chaplaincy another $65,000 towards 11 school resource officers for the district.
One of these chaplains described her experience with the program on the chaplaincy’s website:
“My prayer is that God will continue to use me as a beacon of His light to the kiddos at Susan B. Anthony. God is able to take our ashes and turn them into something beautiful. I am humbled and honored to be a chaplain to these children.”
Another chaplain stated:
“When people hear that I am a school chaplain, they immediately ask, ‘what do you do?’ My answer? I put on the uniform and show up, never knowing what God has planned for that day.”
FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line has written to Fresno Unified School District Superintendent Robert Nelson detailing the unconstitutionality of this taxpayer-funded religious partnership.
“It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for the district to offer religious chaplains unique access to befriend students during the school day on school property,” Line writes. “No outside adults should be provided carte blanche access to minors — a captive audience — in a public school.”
It is well-settled law that public schools may not advance or promote religion, FFRF reminded the district. This program impermissibly allows religious officials unmediated access to young and impressionable students and creates a culture where Christian viewpoints are privileged within the school.
“The district must rectify this serious violation to protect the rights of conscience of these young students,” comments FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Using taxpayer money to fund faith-based training is unacceptable.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 31,000 members and several chapters across the country, including over 4,100 members in California and a chapter in Sacramento. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between church and state, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.