CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Senate, unanimously and with no debate, passed a bill permitting “faith-based electives in classroom drug prevention programs” Monday.
Senate Bill 42, sponsored by Sens. Mark Maynard, R-Wayne, and Sue Cline, R-Wyoming, states that “comprehensive drug awareness and prevention programs for students in grades K through 12 may include faith-based electives for drug awareness in classrooms.”
In an interview Monday, Lawrence Scheier, a research development psychologist who has evaluated several large-scale drug prevention programs, said schools that receive federal funds are mandated to use evidence-based drug prevention programs, and that “very few” evidence-based programs include a faith-based component.
He said those programs are typically implemented by smaller organizations than school systems, such as churches, so studies have smaller sample sizes and the large-scale studies that can show a program is “evidence-based” are more difficult to conduct.
Scheier, who has written books on youth drug prevention programming and evaluated the “This is Your Brain on Drugs” campaign, clarified that faith-based programs geared at a specific population, like those already engaging in substance abuse, rather than school-wide, might be more likely to succeed.
In an interview Monday, Maynard said the request came from Teen Challenge, which operates residential programs for youth in Princeton and Clarksburg. According to their website, they “base the curriculum and community of our addiction recovery centers on God’s Word — the Bible” and they serve people “struggling with drugs, alcohol, and other life controlling issues.”
Maynard said the bill would allow Teen Challenge to work in prevention in schools.
“Everything we can do to help this drug addiction problem we need to do, and in my opinion, we need to fix the fence before the cattle get out, and you can go ahead and quote me on that,” he said.
West Virginia has the highest drug overdose death rate in the nation, and many of the children of parents lost to overdoses are now in custody of the state, which also has the highest per capita rate of children in state custody in the country.
“If one child goes to that program and is helped, that’s all we need, and we need a lot of different, diverse things that we can expose these children to so they can be prevented from getting on drugs,” Cline said.
Maynard wasn’t immediately aware Monday of any proven-to-work faith-based prevention programs. The director of Teen Challenge couldn’t be immediately reached Monday.
In statements on social media, the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia has said they “strongly oppose” the bill.
“It exposes schools to potential litigation and violates the rights of students of minority religions,” they said.
The second sentence of the bill states: “The state board shall promulgate a rule on how the faith-based electives can be offered in a way that is consistent with constitutional requirements.”
The ACLU says that schools shouldn’t provide religious education, and argued that the bill “may as well say ‘Pigs are permitted to fly. The State Board will figure out how.’”
“To me, the separation of church and state has nothing to do with faith-based initiatives,” Maynard responded. “It’s just to not pick and choose winners and losers in the world of religion, as far as Baptist, Presbyterian, etc.”
“Everything’s a choice,” Cline added, “and everything should be. They should have a choice. Teachers and students, parents. They should all have a choice.”
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