‘Origins of life’ legislation has momentum
A bill that requires Utah science teachers to present alternatives to the theory of human evolution in their classrooms sailed through the state Senate Monday and now awaits debate in the House of Representatives.
Before it passed, however, the sponsor of Senate Bill 96, Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, watered down the bill by inserting the word "scientific" in the text. The initial version required teachers simply present "opposing viewpoints" to the ideas proffered by Charles Darwin during the 1800s. But the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah still plans to sue the state if the House of Representatives and Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. endorse the legislation.
Buttars says he’s ready for a fight. "The evolutionary people are so desperate to try to say that this bill involves faith-based philosophies that without [the amendment] they tried to use those sentences to say, well, there is where they are trying to leave the opening to sneak in the faith-based philosophies," the senator said during a telephone interview Tuesday. "So, I inserted ‘scientific’ to take that argument away from them."
But it’s not enough, according to ACLU of Utah Executive Director Dani Eyer.
"That the bill has been sanitized to take all reference to creationism and religion and intelligent design out of the bill does not really matter to us," Eyer said. "It’s been clear all along from the legislative record and the legislative history and the statements by every senator who sits up on the floor of the Senate that this is directly linked to the personal beliefs of the legislators, and linked to religion." Buttars’ opponents claim he discussed requiring intelligent design be taught in classrooms when he began crafting the legislation about a year ago. The theory of intelligent design professes that there are too many facets of nature that evolution cannot explain.
Though he supports intelligent design, Buttars says he never intended religious thought to be espoused in public school science classes.
That would violate the federal First Amendment’s establishment clause, which helps protect the separation of church and state, Eyer said. "It’s easily challengeable because the bill is unconstitutional," she added.
But 16 senators who supported the bill disagreed, including Allen Christensen, a Republican from North Ogden who represents most of eastern Summit County. Sen. Beverly Evans, who represents Park City and Snyderville, was one of the few Republicans who opposed the bill. Buttars missed Monday’s vote due to illness.
"The purpose of this bill is to keep the great scientific community from stepping beyond what they know," Buttars said. "For them to try to say that man evolved from a chimpanzee is a greater leap of faith than a faith-based philosophy I think it offends the majority of Utahns." Before he voted against the bill Monday, Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake City, tried to remove all references to the "origins of life" from Buttars’ legislation. "Who knows what [McCoy] and the ACLU are trying to do," Buttars said about an "aggressive" letter presented on the Senate floor Friday. "I would like to congratulate the ACLU for coming on board so aggressively, because that tells me that I’m just absolutely certain that I’m on the right track," he added.
With the recent amendments, Kamas Republican Rep. David Ure said he wasn’t sure Monday "that the bill is doing anything anymore."
Ure wouldn’t say how he would vote. Meanwhile, instead of wasting time debating message bills, she encouraged lawmakers to provide adequate funding for public education. "I’m just extremely disappointed that Senator Buttars expends so much energy furthering his moral, political and religious agenda, rather than focusing on what we should really be focusing on," Park City School District board member Kim Carson said. "It’s not science and we need to let our science teachers teach science." "When we’re dead last in the nation, I think it’s just a very poor reflection on Utah’s values as a state," she added.
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