SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Legislature's Senate Education Committee gave unanimous approval Tuesday to the latest version of SB196, which the sponsor says is intended to treat all students equally with respect to sex education instruction in Utah public schools.
The amended legislation emphasizes instruction that encourages fidelity in marriage and eliminates a specific prohibition against "advocacy of homosexuality" from Utah's statute on health education.
"We're focusing on making sure we’re treating all kids equally. What this bill does is it allows us to focus on just that, making sure we treat everyone equally whether it's homosexuality and heterosexuality. The state has a compelling interest to teach all children," said Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton.
The bill "sustains and verifies the fact our statute focuses on fidelity and abstinence before marriage," Adams said.
Members of the public who addressed the bill all spoke in favor of its latest version, among them Mark Huntsman, chairman of the Utah State Board of Education; Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum; and law professor Clifford Rosky, who serves on the advisory board of Equality Utah.
"The critical point here is the bill stands for all. It treats all student alike," Rosky said.
Ruzicka said her organization supports the bill because it is important that all students are taught the importance of "not participating in premarital sex."
Bill Duncan, representing the Sutherland Institute, said SB196 doesn't change the intent of Utah law, which encourages sexual relations within marriage. It also removes language that singles out a particular group, which would render the state vulnerable to a lawsuit on the grounds of equal protection and could "invite the federal court in micromanagement of Utah curriculum."
Rosky said the possible passage of SB196 does not necessarily mean an end to a federal lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of state education policies that prohibit any positive discussion of homosexuality in the classroom and prevent teachers or school officials from supporting LGBT students to protect them from harassment.
Rosky said "questions remain" how the new language will be applied in Utah public schools.
"We have to be very clear that every school district in Utah, every charter school has to understand what the word 'marriage' means in the statute. Utah still has laws on the books that criminalize same-sex relationships and prohibit same-sex marriages. Even though those laws have been declared unconstitutional, we have to make sure every public school in the state understands they can't be enforced even with respect to sex ed," he said.
The intent of the bill, Rosky said, "is crystal clear, which is to treat all students alike; that there's no special prohibitions on what you can say about same-sex relationships or LGBT people."
Later in the day, during the Utah Senate's daily media briefing, Adams said he'll let Equality Utah speak for itself with respect to the ongoing lawsuit, but "I think we're doing the right thing."
"I don't know if the legislation needs necessarily to be responsive to litigation," he said. "They'll make those comments and decide. I do know there was a stay filed for on Friday and it might have been a joint stay."
Adams referred to a joint motion for a stay of proceedings filed in federal court Friday, which was granted by U.S. District Judge Dee Benson.
The stay effectively puts the lawsuit on hold as the Utah Legislature considers SB196. If the bill becomes law, "the parties will meet and confer to discuss what claims or issues, if any, remain for this court’s adjudication and submit either a joint motion to dismiss or a proposed amended scheduling order within 30 days from the date the governor enacts SB196 into law," Benson's order states.
If the bill does not become law under a variety of circumstances, the stay will be lifted, the order states.
"By requesting this stay and agreeing to its terms, neither party has waived any of its claims or defenses previously asserted in this lawsuit," the order states.
During debate on the bill, Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, told Adams, "I think you're a genius. This could have been a very divisive bill with hours and hours of debate."
Instead, the bill is a "win-win," Stephenson said.
"Most of all children will be the winners from this bill," he said. "Not only will they feel safer in our schools and our teachers and faculty will have the capacity to make all children feel safe. They will also feel safer in our communities, and that will create Utah as a better place. I just think this is an ingenious solution."
The lawsuit against the Utah State Board of Education, filed in October, cites experiences of three unnamed Utah students in elementary, middle and high schools to illustrate what other lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths experience in Utah public schools, according to the complaint.
Equality Utah, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the plaintiffs, claims Utah school policies violate constitutional rights of free speech and equal protection, as well as Title IX protections.
The lawsuit claims current law, which discourages educators from reaching out to LGBT students, renders them vulnerable to bullying and isolation, according to the lawsuit.
The three student plaintiffs include a gender nonconforming 5-year-old boy in Weber County who the lawsuit claims found himself beaten and bullied by his classmates when school officials failed to intervene.
Another plaintiff is a gay high school student in Cache County who says he was barred from sharing an English paper about his uncle, who is married to a man, according to the pleadings.
The third student plaintiff is a lesbian girl in Salt Lake County who claims she was "selectively disciplined" for holding another girl's hand while in middle school in the Jordan School District, though heterosexual student couples have not faced the same consequences, according to court documents.
Debra Coe, representing the Utah Commission on LGBT Suicide Prevention and Awareness, told lawmakers it is crucial that state policy and its implementation establish a school climate that is not hostile to LGBT youths and the educators they turn to for help or support.
"I think that's extremely important to these youths. Nine out of 10 are bullied or harassed at school. I've seen that harassment. I've been to the hospital when these kids have attempted suicide, when they don't feel there is anyone they can turn to. It's very, very important that there is someone they feel that they can talk to. You don’t necessarily have to advocate to be kind," she said.