'Origins of life' bill falters

Some Republicans in House raising concerns

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 25 2006 9:12 a.m. MST

After advancing quickly through its early stages of development, a Senate bill addressing what should be taught in public schools about the origins of life may find the going a bit more difficult in the House.

Already, some Republicans in the House are raising concerns about SB96, which would regulate classroom discussions about the origins of life by requiring that teachers must "stress that not all scientists agree on which theory regarding the origins of life, or the origins or present state of the human race, is correct." The bill passed the Senate Monday.

House Majority Whip Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, said Tuesday that he cannot support the bill because it does not clarify those competing theories, especially regarding evolution. At the same time, he doubted that those other theories could be clarified because there is only one, intelligent design, which fills the gaps in evolutionary theory by crediting a higher power.

"God has no argument with science, and science does not have an argument with God," Urquhart said. "For many of us, each explains the other."

While the bill does not mention religion, creationism, intelligent design or God, Urquhart said he does not see how it could not be intended to bring those elements into a scientific discussion. But if it truly is a bill devoid of religion, then he wants the scientific explanations.

"The backers of this bill are saying this bill has nothing to do with faith or religion," Urquhart said. "If that's the case, and we're only dealing with this on the basis of science, this becomes a very easy decision: There's only one scientific theory regarding the diversity of the species. That theory is evolution."

Reached at home Tuesday while recovering from a hospital stay this past weekend, Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, the bill's sponsor, said that evolution is not the only accepted theory and that for many scientists it still has many holes. He would not specify those other theories, however, although he plans to when the bill is heard in a House committee.

He also remained confident that the bill would pass the House.

"Evolution is not the consensus theory," Buttars said. "In fact, it's a leap of faith for many scientists, which is ironic."

Utah Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka said that religion is not an element of the bill and that anyone who reads it will find that there is nothing to dispute. In fact, the bill only requires that "as long as it's scientific, they can talk about it," but teachers do not have to discuss religious viewpoints.

"We talking about the origins of life," she said. "Some say that we started with monkeys, others say we climbed out of the slime — if you look at everything that has been said, all you can do is point out that there are competing theories."

House sponsor Rep. Jim Ferrin, R-Orem, said about Urquhart's statement that it's "only one vote." Although he would not prognosticate about the bill's eventual fate, he said he thinks House members "are intelligent enough" to understand the intent of the bill.

"This is not about Sen. Buttars' religious beliefs. . . . This is not about intelligent design," he said. "I think it's about not overstepping what we know."

As of yet, many Republicans are withholding judgment about the bill. During a leadership news conference Tuesday, only Urquhart responded to questions, and when pressed the other half-dozen representatives present stayed silent. And prior to its passage in the Senate, a handful of House moderates had more questions than answers.

"The age-old dilemma here is how many curriculum decisions should the Legislature be making," Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, said last week. "Another question is, is it in compliance with the scientific method?"

Other moderates said that in the end, the debate may convince representatives that the bill is worthwhile — just as it did in the Senate.

"We need to have an open mind," Rep. Dave Hogue, R-Riverton, said last week. "It would be wrong of us to close the door and not listen to the debate . . . (people) may be surprised, and see the House may pass this."

On the flip side, Rep. Kory Holdaway, R-Taylorsville, thought that the bill was not something that the Legislature should be passing.

"I just don't think it's something we need to be doing," he said.


E-mail: jloftin@desnews.com