White House aims to combat teen drug use with faith

WASHINGTON — Several Jewish groups are supporting a new federal program aimed at helping faith-based institutions fight drug and alcohol abuse.

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy on Thursday announced a new program that targets synagogues and churches, encouraging them to focus on preventing youth drug use, specifically of marijuana.

"This tool kit is going to be a lifesaver for churches that don't know how to talk to kids about the subject, but want to," said Jim Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

The campaign's slogan, one of a series, is "Faith. The Anti-Drug."

While many Jewish groups have opposed the Bush administration's interest in faith-based initiatives, claiming they blur the line between church and state, several Jewish groups, including the United Jewish Communities and the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization, are involved in the drug project, entitled "Pathways to Prevention: Guiding Youth to Wise Decisions."

"We are concerned about government funding of sectarian material, but this is not the case at all," said Rabbi Eric Lankin, director of religious and educational activities at UJC, the umbrella organization of the Jewish federation system.

He said Jewish communities should utilize the material the government is providing and craft Jewish material to complement it.

"We need to realize this is no longer a gentile problem," said Lankin, who claimed marijuana use is rising among Jewish teenagers. "We need to be much more aggressive."

John Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said the program is an acknowledgment that faith plays a large role in many teenagers' lives, and that drug prevention programs utilizing faith can be effective.

"We are trying to recognize that we need to find more people pathways to recovery that are right for them," Walters said.

Not everyone agrees. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, argues that a "merger" between government and faith institutions is unconstitutional.

"The Bush administration seems to think there's a 'faith-based' solution to every social and medical problem in America," Lynn said. "The project announced today is one very small part of a larger crusade that raises troubling constitutional concerns."

Lynn cited Walters' recent appearance at a "Teen Challenge" facility whose treatment program includes conversion to fundamentalist Christianity. Walters said the program does not take government funding and is part of a diverse network that offers drug counseling.

Lankin said UJC and other Jewish groups are well aware of the constitutional concerns about faith-based issues, but are trying to work with the government without crossing that line.

"It's very easy to say no," he said. "It's very sophisticated to create a nuanced response."

Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, an opponent of federal funding of faith-based initiatives, said he does not see a problem with the new program, but worries that it will be only a temporary measure before funding is moved toward faith-based programs.

"It does indeed seem like something that would be appropriate," he said. "But it's unlikely that today's announcement is the last we'll hear on this subject."