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Utah's SB 96 approved by committee
Utah's Senate Bill 96, sponsored by Senator Chris Buttars (R-District 10), was approved by the Senate Education Committee by a 4-2 vote along party lines on January 17, 2006. If enacted, SB 96 would direct the Utah state board of education to require "that instruction to students on any theory regarding the origins of life, or the origins or present state of the human race, shall stress that not all scientists agree on which theory is correct" and to "ensure that all policies and positions of the State Board of Education relating to theories regarding the origins of life or the origins or present state of the human race: (i) do not endorse a particular theory; and (ii) stress that not all scientists agree on which theory is correct."
According to the Salt Lake Tribune (January 18, 2006), Buttars defended the bill during the committee hearing by saying, "There is no consensus on the origins of life or how man became as he is today ... 'All the bill states is 'Don't overstate what you know.'" The extent of Buttars's own knowledge is suggested by his description, also reported in the Tribune, of the absence of transitional forms: "There is evolution within species ... There are big dogs and little dogs, big cats and little cats, but you haven't seen a 'dat.' You don't see intermediate species." Brett Moulding, the state's core curriculum director, reportedly cited the well-documented bird-reptile transition by way of counterexample.
SB 96's supporters on the committee insisted that, despite Buttars's prior statements about his intent in introducing such legislation, the bill was not intended to promote a particular religious view and would not "force any other theory to be introduced," according to a detailed account [Link broken] of the committee hearing that appeared in the Tooele Transcript-Bulletin (January 19, 2006). Brett Moulding noted that if so, the bill was unnecessary, since "the core curriculum understands that science conclusions are tentative and therefore never final ... They're always subject to revision with new evidence." But if the bill were to require the presentation of a scientifically credible alternative to evolution, he said, "I cannot think of one."
The editorial reaction of the Salt Lake Tribune (January 19, 2006) to the vote was unsparing. Referring to Buttars's discussion of evolution, the editorial commented, "every time the West Jordan Republican opens his mouth to address the subject, he removes all doubt about the fact that he has absolutely no idea what he's talking about," adding, "Senate Bill 96 would probably be the first article, section or clause in our state statute book that is a downright lie." Noting that Governor Huntsman hopes to improve science and mathematics education in the state, the editorial concluded by suggesting that "[t]he governor should have his veto pen at the ready for this one."
Meanwhile, the ACLU of Utah was not idle, sending a letter (PDF) to members of the state senate urging that they vote against SB 96. The letter cited applicable case law, including Selman v. Cobb County and Kitzmiller v. Dover; in both cases, the letter explained, the court "noted the sectarian motivation behind the school districts' selection of one, and only one, scientific area for particular scrutiny," just as in SB 96. Concluding, the ACLU of Utah urged the Senate to "take note of the current legal landscape regarding the constitutionality of statutes and policies like SB 96, and ... not [to] risk an expensive and unnecessary lawsuit by passing the bill."
Similarly, in a letter dated January 19, 2006, Americans United for Separation of Church and State urged Utah senators to oppose SB 96. American United's letter argues, "Although SB 96 does not mention intelligent design or creationism by name, there is no doubt that the bill ... comes out of religiously motivated opposition to the scientific theory of evolution," adding, "we have no doubt that if this statute were challenged, it would be found unconstitutional." The letter concludes, "Undermining evolution is not only detrimental to the science education of our children, but is also unconstitutional. We urge you to vote against SB 96, and to support science education and religious liberty."
A story in the Deseret Morning News (January 19, 2006) provided useful background on the variety of religious attitudes toward evolution, especially within the Mormon church, to which a majority of Utahns belong. Highlighted was Mormonism and Evolution: The Authoritative LDS Statements, a compilation of statements issued or sanctioned by the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints from 1909 to 2004, edited by two Utah science professors, William E. Evenson and Duane E. Jeffery (who serves on NCSE's board of directors). Jeffery told the Morning News, "There has been a belief, for years and years and years, that Mormonism and evolution are diametrically opposed," a belief that the book seeks to dispel.