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"Divine design" legislation threatened in Utah

Utah is abuzz with the news that a state senator plans to introduce legislation to teach "divine design" in the state's public schools.

Not so long ago, a Deseret Morning News article on evolution education in Utah referred to "Utah's non-war over evolution." Writing in the March 19, 2005, issue of the newspaper, Elaine Jarvik observed, "One might suppose, given that Utahns tend to be both conservative and religious, that evolution would be a contentious topic in Utah's schools; but yet another legislative session has passed with no mention of Charles Darwin. And Brett Moulding can count on his fingers the number of anti-evolution phone calls he's gotten in the past 10 years, first as science education specialist and then as curriculum director for the Utah State Office of Education." Part of the lack of controversy may be due to the fact that in Utah, as elsewhere, teachers frequently succumb to pressure to downplay or omit evolution. Additionally, Jarvik wrote, "Utah students often don't believe what they've been taught anyway, because they've learned something different from teachers in LDS Church seminary classes," although it is disputed whether or not the Mormon faith in fact rejects evolution. The article concluded by reporting Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, to have plans "to tackle evolution" -- and so she did.

According to a story in the June 3, 2005, issue of the Salt Lake City Tribune, Senator Chris Buttars (R-West Jordan), with the support of the Utah Eagle Forum, plans "to lead the fight for instruction of divine design in Utah public schools," apparently when the Utah state legislature reconvenes in January 2006. "Divine design," according to Buttars, "doesn't preach religion ... The only people who will be upset about this are atheists. ... It shocks me that our schools are teaching evolution as fact." The Eagle Forum's Ruzicka explained her motivations for supporting the threatened legislation: "What an insult to teach children that they have evolved from a lower life to what they are now, and then they go home and learn that they are someone special, a child of God. ... This is not right." But Brett Moulding, the curriculum director for the state board of education, explained, "We don't teach religion in school," and Scott Berryessa, president of the Jordan Education Association, representing about 2,100 Utah teachers, lamented, "Teachers wish that our Legislature would stop micromanaging the process of education -- especially when it comes to issues as personal as these."

A pointed editorial [Link broken] in the June 6 Salt Lake City Tribune criticized Buttars's proposal as not also wrong but counterproductive: "Except for his new label for an idea called 'intelligent design' -- itself a euphemism for the oxymoron 'creation science' -- the proposal from the West Jordan Republican is an echo of battles that are already being fought in Kansas, Missouri, Georgia and Alabama, battles that consume a great deal of the oxygen that ought to be expended solving real problems, from health care to poverty to war." It concluded, "Forcing religion to stand in for science does no favor to religion, to science, or to our children. How wonderful it would be if Utah understood that." And on June 9, a similarly trenchant editorial [Link broken] in the Ogden Standard-Examiner also ridiculed Buttars's coinage of "divine design" before deploring how, "[b]y trying to inject religious indoctrination into the schools, Buttars and his fellow supporters of 'divine design' are inviting state control over matters now exclusively left to parents and families."

Utahns concerned about the threatened "divine design" legislation are encouraged to get in touch with Duane Jeffrey, a professor of biology at Brigham Young University and a member of NCSE's board of directors, at duane_jeffery@byu.edu.