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Buttars plans a bill on evolution

A Utah senator says he has opened a confidential bill file challenging the State Board of Education's position on teaching evolution in public schools — a measure he'll unveil at the conservative Utah Eagle Forum's annual convention just days before the 2006 Legislature begins.

"I have it 'confidential' " — or shielded from public view — "and it's 'prioritized.' That means it will be heard," Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, said Wednesday.

When asked if it would require intelligent design — an idea that life is so complex it can't be explained by Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and natural selection alone — to be taught in Utah public schools, Buttars said: "I'm not answering that yet. I certainly think it should. I believe with the president of the United States that intelligent design should have an equal position (in evolution lessons). But whether I do that in this bill this time, I'm not sure."

Buttars said the bill will challenge the state school board's statement on teaching evolution. When pressed, he said it could require the state school board to reword its position statement. He also acknowledged it could require teachers to read a statement of sorts before evolution lessons.

"We've got two or three different (things) we're looking at right now," Buttars said. He said he also might address his concerns in a series of bills over the next few years.

Intelligent design has stirred national discussion. It does not name the designer. But critics call intelligent design a thinly veiled reference to creationism, which the Supreme Court barred from public school lessons in 1987.

Intelligent design has led to controversy and lawsuits in a handful of school boards that have discussed or adopted it nationwide.

A Pennsylvania federal judge expects to rule in January whether intelligent design improperly promotes religion in schools. At issue is a complaint against the Dover Area School District, which requires students hear a statement about intelligent design before ninth-grade biology lessons on evolution. The school board's attorney said the policy was intended to call attention to "a new, fledgling science movement," The Associated Press reported.

Last week, in a move hailed by intelligent design backers, the Kansas Board of Education rewrote the definition of science so that it is no longer limited to the search for natural explanations of phenomena, The AP reported. It also wrote new science standards saying high school students must understand major evolutionary concepts but that the basic Darwinian theory has been challenged in recent years by fossil evidence and molecular biology.

Buttars has suggested intelligent design be taught in Utah public schools, perhaps in a required philosophy or humanities class, if students must learn humans evolved from lesser species. He likened barring such discussions to censorship.

The State Board of Education last September unanimously supported teaching evolution in high school biology, where it is central to the state core curriculum. Its position statement was supported by several university professors and scientists from institutions including Brigham Young University.

"The board listened to good testimony (and) is quite committed, I think, to the separation of religion from the schools, though many of us are very religious folks," State Board of Education chairman Kim Burningham said, reserving judgment on Buttars' bill until he sees it. "I just hate (for) us to give our attention to that when it seems (there are) so many more important things we ought to be giving our attention to."

Buttars said he formally requested that the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel draft the bill early this month.

He addressed the matter on "The Senate Site" online blog this week, saying bill language will remain shielded from public view "until I'm satisfied that, one, the intent of the bill is clear, two, how it will be administered is also clear, and three, it can withstand a court challenge."

"I'm constantly pestered, 'Are you doing anything in this arena?' My answer is yes, and I'm presently preparing it," Buttars said in an interview. "I have a very strong individual in the House who knows what I'm doing and wants to be a sponsor over there. . . . Yes, he's one of the leaders."

House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, said he was unaware of any House sponsors.

Utah Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka praises Buttars' efforts. She asked Buttars to speak on the subject of evolution and intelligent design at the group's Jan. 14 convention. She said Buttars offered to unveil the bill at the same time.

"This is a very, very important issue for us," Ruzicka said. "We're not asking them not to teach evolution, but one, teach evolution as a theory ,and two. . . , include more than one viewpoint. It's as simple as that. We want young people who have been taught something else to not doubt what they've been taught (by being) given information that evolution is a fact."