Evolution legislation scuttled
The state’s House of Representatives on Monday scuttled a bill that opponents say could have allowed science teachers to present religious concepts in their classrooms during discussions about the origins of life.
"That is good news for me," said Kim Carson, a member of the Park City Board of Education. "I think science should be left to science class."
With a 46-28 vote, representatives agreed. They denied Republican Sen. Chris Buttars’ controversial Senate Bill 96. The legislation would have required public-school teachers to present alternatives to Charles Darwin’s widely accepted theory of human evolution.
"I wanted to tell the school, don’t do that, you don’t know that, nor do you even know how life began," Buttars recently told The Park Record. "Human evolution is a theory, not a scientific law."
But a U.S. District Court judge recently ruled that science teachers in a Pennsylvania school district could not teach so-called divine design in their classrooms. Divine design claims some aspects of the natural world are too complex to be explained by the concepts of evolution propagated by Darwin in the 1800s.
"Teach evolution at school, and leave the other to the parents and their religious convictions," Park City High School Principal Hal Smith said during a recent interview.
The senator says he began crafting SB 96 about a year ago after parents approached him and asked "how come my kid’s coming home and telling me that in his high school biology class he’s being told that we evolved from some kind of a primate?"
With a 16-12 vote, the Senate passed the bill Jan. 23. But House lawmakers appeared unwilling to meddle in the affairs of local school districts.
"We were very concerned about the Legislature dictating curriculum in the schools," said David Chaplin, president of the Park City school board.
Sen. Beverly Evans, a Republican from Altamont who represents western Summit County, voted against SB 96. But eastern Summit County’s Republican senator, Allen Christensen, supported the legislation.
"If teachers would teach the theory as theory it would not be necessary," Christensen said. "But some of them go overboard."
By pushing initially for the teaching of divine design, Buttars hindered passage of SB 96, Christensen said, adding, "it got labeled ‘creationism’ or ‘divine design’ and that was the end of it."
"People never forgave him and couldn’t look past his initial comments. [SB 96] doesn’t say God, doesn’t say religion, doesn’t say any of this stuff," Christensen said, adding, "I’m very disappointed part of it was the result of the sponsor having spoken up too loudly in the first place."
But according to Rep. David Ure, R-Kamas, "it’s none of our business and I think for once the House ruled on correct issues."
"We decapitated [SB 96] and then still killed it," Ure said. "That’s a school board issue."
Because Buttars was hospitalized during much of the legislative session with an undisclosed illness, there is speculation the senator ran out of time to convince his House colleagues to support the measure. But the Senate’s support for SB 96 may have merely been a kind gesture for the ailing Buttars, Ure said, adding, "sometimes they pass things out that they wouldn’t normally do."
"It’s very, very hard for one person to influence both houses," he said.
Meanwhile, Rep. Ross Romero, a Salt Lake Democrat who represents portions of Snyderville, also opposed SB 96.
"I was pleased that that effort was defeated," Romero said. "I just think that the educators are best able to determine how to teach science and so leaving it to their discretion, in my opinion, was the most appropriate thing to do."
Claiming SB 96 could have infringed on the separation of church and state guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah threatened to sue the state had the legislation passed.
"It’s religiously motivated and it opens the door to teaching religion in the science classroom," said Margaret Plane, legal director for the ACLU of Utah. "The bill wasn’t about improving science education."
And last week, Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr. threatened to veto SB 96 had it passed.
Though a veto won’t be necessary, because the scientific community hasn’t reached consensus on the origins of life, teachers still should present other theories, Christensen said.
"When something isn’t a proven fact, we ought not to just take things for granted," Christensen said. "People used to be put to death for saying the world wasn’t flat, because everybody knew it was flat. Lo and behold they found out it really wasn’t flat."
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Welcome to The Park Record’s 2020 edition of Mile Post, our annual report on key indicators in our changing community.