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Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, defends his bill, SB96, which would make schools include discussion of viewpoints that oppose evolution.

After a debate laced with references to faith, the Senate on Friday gave its initial blessing to a bill regulating classroom discussions on the origins of life.

The Senate provisionally passed SB96, sponsored by Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, 17-12. The bill must be heard one more time, but votes are not expected to change, said Senate Majority Leader Peter C. Knudson, R-Brigham City.

Buttars slightly amended the bill on the Senate floor, injecting the word "scientific" into two sentences of the bill. So now, students are to critically analyze theories regarding the origins of life or current state of the human race, and consider opposing "scientific" viewpoints, and learn that not all scientists agree on which "scientific" theory is correct.

The State Board of Education is directed to establish curriculum requirements consistent with that language.

The changes, Buttars said, should satisfy the Utah Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and other opponents that his motives are not religious in nature.

"My bill from the get-go never included anything about intelligent design, creationism or any faith-based philosophy. When the bill came out, everybody ignored that," he said.

"All it's asking is when you get done teaching your evolution, is (say) there is no consensus, and there are other theories. . . . We're trying to protect our kids," Buttars said. "That professor they brought in from the BYU talking about (how) we evolved from chimpanzees, he don't know that."

But the ACLU isn't satisfied the bill would pass constitutional muster.

In a letter sent earlier this week, the ACLU noted the bill's language is similar to disclaimer stickers in Cobb County (Ga.) School District textbooks, which a court ruled "contains an implicit religious message . . . which is discernible after one considers the historical context of the statement that evolution is a theory but not a fact," states the letter signed by legal director Margaret Plane.

"I still think anyone could look at it and raise question about its constitutionality," Plane said after the debate. "It comes back to the question, what does this bill do?"

Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, believes the bill codifies current practice in public schools.

The origin of life is not addressed in the state's core curriculum.

But Darwin's theory of evolution is central to the high school biology core curriculum. Buttars has taken issue with that, saying the idea humans evolved from a lower species is not a proven fact. Friday, he noted a woman told him when her children were told "we evolved from a lower kind in school . . . it totally blew up their faith."

Buttars last August asked the State Board of Education to insert in curriculum language that humans didn't evolve from any other species. He also had publicly suggested that if students were learning human evolution, they be required to learn about intelligent design — or the idea that life is too complex to be explained by Darwin's theory alone — in a humanities or other class outside of science.

But instead, the board unanimously passed a position statement supporting evolution in the curriculum and telling teachers to respect students' beliefs.

Buttars vowed he would pursue legislation on the matter.

Friday's debate was peppered with religious references, and defenses.

Sen. Parley Hellewell, R-Orem, who supports the legislation, told senators, "It's important we stand up and fight for what we believe."

"I will not be cowed into silence by threats from those using the R word (religion)," said Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden. "I take exception to this theory as being totally accepted fact. It is not."

Sen. Sheldon Killpack, R-Syracuse, said, "I'm amazed that this religion of atheism and secularism, they are so nervous about being able to simply say, not everyone agrees on this (theory). . . . The slippery slope is that religion's imposing view that we can't have a belief in God. I find that offensive, personally."

Faith also entered Knudson's speech opposing the bill.

"I don't have any doubt in my mind about the existence of God . . . or creation of Earth by God, or our Father in Heaven. (What I don't know is) how God created the Earth, how God created his creatures and all that is created therein," Knudson said. "There is a place in life for evolution — it's part of life. The whole principle of being born, gaining experiences and leaving this Earth is purely evolution in one context or another. It saddens me that one's faith would be challenged on a vote on this bill. I vote no."

Science also played a role in the debate.

Sen. Karen Hale, D-Salt Lake, noted scientific theories are developed after repeat testing, observation and data and are far more complicated than an educated guess or the common usage of the term. She questioned whether the bill would require students discuss the origins of life, which is not part of the state core curriculum.

Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake, unsuccessfully proposed amendments to replace references to the origins of life or "present state of the human race" with "scientific" theory. So, the bill would encourage students to critically analyze scientific theories, from relativity to plate tectonics.

"If we are actually going to do those things, we should do it not with just one theory in the biology classroom. We should do it with all theories in the classroom," McCoy said. "The fact it does target one particular theory points to the fact this debate is really about something much different than is being represented."

Utah Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka said the bill has nothing to do with religion. She noted references to faith "happens all the time here in the Legislature.

"(The bill is) so simple, I don't understand why everyone's making such a big deal out of it."

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. last summer said he did not believe intelligent design should be taught in science classes, and that science students should "be instructed in those things that are somewhat quantifiable and based on thorough and rigorous empirical research." The time to talk about other concepts is outside the classroom, at home or in church, he said.

Friday, his deputy chief of staff and spokesman, Mike Mower, said Huntsman's stand is the same. But just as the governor did earlier this year, Mower stopped short of saying the governor would veto Buttars' bill, should it pass the House.

"It's too early for that discussion," Mowers said. Asked about the changes made in the legislation since it was first proposed, Mowers said only that the administration "will continue to review the bill. However, the governor has made his position clear."

Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche

E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com