Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signs school chaplain bills, says Satanists not welcome

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis walks through the garage area before the 66th Annual Daytona 500 at the Daytona International Speedway. The governor on Thursday signed a bill authorizing school districts to establish a school chaplain program by which religious organizations can interact with students. File photo by Mike Gentry/UPI
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April 18 (UPI) -- Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday signed a bill allowing religious leaders and "patriotic organizations" to interact with students in school, a move that the Satanic Temple plans to contest.

DeSantis on Thursday held a conference signing two new bills, HB 1317 and HB 931, which he said would be beneficial to the mental health of Florida students.

HB 931 establishes a statewide school chaplain program, which means schools can invite religious affiliates to provide counseling and other services to students who want it and have written permission from their parents.

"There are some students where they need some soul craft," DeSantis said. "That can make all the difference in the world."

HB 1317 authorizes school districts to bring in "patriotic organizations," such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, The Boy Scouts of America, Boys & Girls Clubs of America and more.

"Not everyone knows what's all out there in the community," DeSantis said. "I think students are better off being involved in any of these activities than just going home and being on electronics for the rest of the day."

Members of the Satanic Temple already are planning to test the limits of the school chaplain bill by bringing their own representatives into public schools.

"Despite DeSantis' contempt for religious liberty, the Constitution guarantees our equal treatment under the law, and DeSantis is not at liberty to amend the Constitution by fiat, at whim," said Lucien Greaves, co-founder of the The Satanic Temple. "He just invited Satanic chaplains into public schools, whether he likes it or not."

DeSantis, who has sparred with the Satanic Temple before, said that's not doing to happen.

"Some have said that if you do a school chaplain program, that somehow you're going to have Satanists running around in all our schools," he said at the press conference Thursday. "We're not playing those games in Florida. That is not a religion. That is not qualifying to be able to participate in this."

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Erin Grall, R-Fort Pierce, however, has taken the opposite stance.

"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 [into] constitutional problems," she said before the bill passed.

Either way, the power is in the hands of school districts as to whether or not they even want to implement a chaplain program. Schools with a chaplain program would have to provide a list of all volunteers and their religious affiliations, DeSantis said.

Any prospective volunteer chaplain also will have to undergo a background check, DeSantis said.

State Democrats who opposed the bill raised concerns about far-right Christian nationalist groups participating in the program.

Other critics raised questions about the credentials of people who would interact with minors.

The law goes into effect July 1.