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Thousands contact Gov. Herbert over abstinence-only sex education bill

Published: Tuesday, March 13 2012 6:17 p.m. MDT

The Utah State Capitol, Monday, Jan. 23, 2012.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert is expected to make a decision next week about a controversial abstinence-only sex education bill, and groups both in support and opposition are working to influence his decision.

The bill, which reached Herbert's desk Tuesday, mandates an abstinence-only curriculum and bans the teaching of contraceptive use in public school sex education classes — and has inspired a wave of opposition. The latest Herbert could make a decision about the bill is March 28.

An online petition asking Herbert to veto the bill has collected more than 38,000 signatures, and the petition's creator planned a rally for Wednesday at 5 p.m. in the Capitol rotunda.

As calls for the governor to veto the bill have grown, supporters have begun ramping up phone calls, emails and letters to the governor's office to counter the vocal opposition.

Adding to the opinions on the issue is a recent poll conducted by the BYU Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, which found more than 58 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that contraceptive use should be taught in public schools.

The poll surveyed more than 400 registered Utah voters who had voted in recent elections and agreed to participate in a series of polls conducted by the nonpartisan academic research center. The poll was conducted between Feb. 27 and March 10 and has a margin of error of 4.5 percent.

The poll revealed the only sub-group that supports abstinence-only education is those who self-identify as "strong Republicans." Sixty-three percent of "strong Republicans" responded that they disagreed or strongly disagreed that contraceptive use should be taught in school.

Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, the bill's sponsor, seemed unfazed by the poll results, saying the Founding Fathers created a government that was not a pure democracy.

"Thank goodness we have a representative form of government and not a populist form of government," he said.

Wright sponsored the bill because he disagreed with what he viewed as inappropriate material presented in classrooms, specifically materials produced by Planned Parenthood. He sponsored a similar bill in 2000 that was vetoed by then-Gov. Mike Leavitt.

Since the Legislature adjourned at midnight Thursday, thousands of phone calls, emails and letters from citizens have poured into the governor's office, mostly in opposition to the bill, Herbert's spokeswoman Ally Isom said, and a handful of conservative groups are making efforts to ensure their opinion is heard.

The Utah Eagle Forum and Sutherland Institute have both sent emails asking citizens to voice their support for the bill, and Isom said the governor's office has noticed a "slight increase" in contact from those supporting the bill.

"I do know that a lot of people have called the governor," said Gayle Ruzicka of the Utah Eagle Forum.

Still, Isom said, those contacting the governor's office in support of the bill are overwhelmingly outnumbered by those opposed — 92 percent to 8 percent.

Ruzicka blasted the online petition for Herbert to veto the bill, calling it "bogus" in the Utah Eagle Forum's email and challenging the validitiy of the signatures.  She said the petition did not require signers to enter their address and there are no checks to ensure individuals did not sign multiple times.

Paul Krueger, a retired firefighter from Murray who created the petition on the website SignOn.org, a site sponsored by MoveOn.org, said he contacted the organization, informing them of the possibility of false names, and was told they would be deleted if found.

Krueger said he was surprised by the reaction to the petition he created.

"I really had no expectations except for maybe getting a thousand signatures," he said. "I've never done anything like this. I didn't know what I was getting myself into."

Isom, the governor's spokeswoman, said in a statement, "Utahns should be assured that the governor values and appreciates all viewpoints and contact from constituents. That feedback will be considered in the governor's deliberative process; however, his ultimate decision will be based on sound policy and what is in the best interest of Utah."

E-mail: hschwarz@desnews.com

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