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Evolution bill may lose its ‘origins of life’ wording

Lawmaker wants to delete all references to ‘origins of life’

SHARE Evolution bill may lose its ‘origins of life’ wording

Deseret Morning News graphic

A controversial bill challenging the way evolution is taught in Utah public schools is evolving again.

SB96's House sponsor, Rep. Jim Ferrin, R-Orem, wants to substitute the bill a third time, taking out all references to the "origins of life" but still aiming to keep teachers from telling students they evolved from apes.

But that can happen only if the House Rules Committee agrees to put the bill up for its final legislative debate.

The changes didn't win over school officials who oppose the bill, primarily because it treads on the state school board's authority to set curriculum.

But a new poll shows Utahns support the Legislature's move to regulate evolution lessons.

Fifty-five percent of Utah residents surveyed by Dan Jones & Associates somewhat or strongly favor legislation requiring public school teachers to "teach that evolution is not indisputably proven and there could be other reasons for human development."

Forty percent said they strongly or somewhat oppose such a measure, and 5 percent didn't know.

The poll of 415 Utah adults, conducted for the Deseret Morning News and KSL-TV Feb. 14-16, has a plus or minus 5 percent error margin.

Evolution is central to the high school biology core curriculum.

Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, last summer said he received parent complaints that children were being taught they evolved from apes, bringing into question their faith on creation. His SB96 has attempted to stop that from happening.

The bill's Senate debates centered on the merits of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and were chock-full of religious references.

Opponents have feared the bill would open the door to teaching creationism or "intelligent design" — the idea that life is too complicated to be explained in public school by Darwin's theory alone, which a Pennsylvania federal court earlier this winter struck down as unconstitutional.

Ferrin attempted to take religion out of the discussion when the bill came to the House. His proposed substitute would erase references to the origins of life and tighten language to zero in on evolution.

"We do not presently teach origins of life in our curriculum, and I didn't want to inadvertently have a requirement (the State Board of Education) create curriculum to address that," Ferrin said.

So, students could be told there is some evidence that leads to the inference that apes and humans share a common ancestor. But that could not be taught as an indisputable fact.

"We can infer all we want to about the origin of the species . . . but let's not (characterize) those inferences as a proven fact. Let's not mislead our kids," Ferrin said. "It's not my desire schools be teaching any notions about religion. But it's also not my desire for us to be teaching as fact that which has not been proven as fact."

Ferrin said the substitute would address State Office of Education concerns.

But curriculum director Brett Moulding says the new incarnation is "even more problematic than previous versions of the bill." It steps on state school board authority to oversee curriculum and misrepresents the fact-backed theory of evolution, he said.

The bill also still comes from a "poisoned well" of legislative intent based on religious beliefs, said Carol Lear, director of school law and legislation for the State Office of Education.

"This is just an evolution . . . from the earlier bill found unconstitutional several times. It isn't sanitized because it's substituted and resubstituted and amended and re-amended," she said.

The bill awaits action in the House Rules Committee, which chooses that bills get heard and which will quietly die. That group has not yet addressed Senate bills, which won't be debated in the House until Monday, said chairwoman Rep. Becky Lockhart, R-Provo.

"Honestly, I'm not even thinking about Senate bills. I'm concerned about House bills, making sure they get a hearing and a chance," she said.

Ferrin believes the House would like the bill in its current state.

"I understand the Senate wants the bill heard, and in the last days of the session the House and Senate get to cooperate with each other," Ferrin said. "I think it's a good bill and it ought to be heard."

E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com