Education, West Virginia Legislature

House Education approves bills on U.S. motto, Intelligent Design, drunk bus drivers

MORGANTOWN – The House Education Committee advanced tweaked versions of two Senate bills on Friday – one regarding the U.S. motto and one enabling the teaching of Intelligent Design. The delegates also moved a House bill to crack down on drunk bus drivers.

SB 152, as it came from the Senate, would require a public elementary or secondary school or higher education institution to display in a conspicuous place in each classroom a poster or framed copy of the national motto – In God We Trust – if the poster or framed copy has been donated, or purchased with private funds and made available to the school. The poster or copy would also bear images of the U.S. and state flags under the motto. It would contain no other words or information.

The House Education version specifies the poster or framed copy must be 8.5×11 inches, and a representation of the U.S. flag must be centered under the motto. It eliminates the state flag from the picture.

For higher education institutions, it restricts mandatory placement to the “main building” of the institution – leaving that choice to each institution – and allowing optional placement in other buildings.

Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, said he fully agrees with the motto, but also agrees with the religious establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, and this bill may violate it by establishing one religion over another in public places. Judaism, for instance, does not spell out the name of God, finding the act disrespectful.

Delegate Ric Griffith, D-Wayne, supported it with some reservations, noting bills like this can be politically expedient, and that he wished the Legislature would put biblical love and concern into all state laws.

The committee approved the bill on a voice vote, with Pushkin the only audible no. It goes next to House Judiciary. A version of this bill passed the Senate unanimously last year and cleared House Education but died in House Judiciary.

SB 280 is the Intelligent Design bill. It’s one sentence long and House Education changed one word.

The Senate version read: “No public school board, school superintendent, or school principal shall prohibit a public school classroom teacher from discussing or answering questions from students about scientific theories of how the universe and/or life came to exist.”

The committee changed “shall” to “may.”

Pushkin offered a failed amendment to add in the teaching of history and social studies to the bill, along with scientific theories.

After it failed and before the vote, Pushkin said he agrees with the essence of the bill: Teachers should be able to teach, and students should be able to ask any questions they want.

He noted that in 2022, voters rejected a constitutional amendment that would have established that state Board of Education rules and policies are subject to legislative review, and that this bill may be subject to court challenge for overstepping legislative authority.

No one voted against it in the voice vote, and it goes next to Judiciary.

HB 5597 is the bus driver bill.

It says that a school bus driver who is charged with driving under the influence of alcohol, controlled substances, or drugs while students are present on the school bus shall also be charged with child endangerment creating a risk of injury by a guardian.

Lead sponsor Heather Tully, R-Nicholas, said the bill arose from an incident in her county, where a driver drank six beers before driving a bus full of 50 children one afternoon.

News reports from March 2023 say a witness saw the bus veering erratically and nearly crashing. No students were on the bus when the driver was arrested and charged with misdemeanor DUI. He failed sobriety tests and blew .118 on a breathalyzer – the legal limit is .08. He was fired later that month.

The school district contacted local legislators after the incident to express to them the misdemeanor charge was inadequate given the danger the driver placed them in.

Tully said that the inadequate consequences leave open the question is the driver going to end up driving in a different school system somewhere else.

The bill, she said, “sends a serious message that we are serious about protecting our students and our children.”

The voice vote was unanimous, and it also goes to Judiciary.