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Abstinence-only sex education bill passes Utah Legislature

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Planned Parenthood Action Council holds a rally in the Capitol Rotunda in support of Sen. Stephen Urquhart's bill that would revise Utah's sex education by giving parents choices of two classes -- one quite detailed, the other with less graphic info.  Thu

Planned Parenthood Action Council holds a rally in the Capitol Rotunda in support of Sen. Stephen Urquhart’s bill that would revise Utah’s sex education by giving parents choices of two classes -- one quite detailed, the other with less graphic info. Thursday, Jan. 21, 2010.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News archives

SALT LAKE CITY — A controversial bill that mandates an abstinence-only sex education curriculum for Utah public schools passed the Utah Senate with little debate on Tuesday.

The Senate followed the lead of the House in voting mostly along party lines for HB363, which defines sex education in Utah as abstinence-only and bans instruction in sexual intercourse, homosexuality, contraceptive methods and sexual activity outside of marriage.

The bill will now go before Gov. Gary Herbert for consideration. A representative of the governor's office would not say if the governor intends to sign the bill, noting that revisions during the legislative process means a final draft of the bill will need to be reviewed.

Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, sponsored the bill in response to what he viewed as inappropriate material being presented in classrooms, specifically materials produced by Planned Parenthood. Throughout the course of the legislative session he said that sex education should take place in the home and was pleased to see the bill pass in the Senate.

"I was happy that they were able to see these things and make the right decision," he said. "They didn't need me to tell them one way or another."

Unlike the long and sometimes awkward debate in the House, the Senate discussion on the bill was brief with most comments coming during the course of the vote. The bill was presented by Senate sponsor Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, who did not yield to questions from her colleagues, saying "everyone knows where they are, I don't know that it's going to be beneficial for me to debate."

Still, several senators, mostly Democrats, took time to explain their votes.

In presenting the bill, Dayton said there has been an alarming increase in sexually transmitted infections nationwide in the 40 years since sex education first began being taught. She said that the bill will still allow biology to be taught in school but added that when contraceptives and sexual intercourse are presented to students, the conversation shifts from a clinical biological discussion to a sexual counseling discussion.

"This just clarifies we'll have an abstinence-only curriculum or a nothing curriculum," she said.

Current Utah law permits instruction about, but not advocacy for, contraceptives and sexual intercourse, but requires parents to give permission for their children to take the class. Multiple groups — such as the Utah Parent Teacher Association — spoke out against Wright's bill, saying it was an unnecessary change to current sex education curriculum and deprived students of information that could reduce teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.

Opponents in both the House and Senate criticized the bill for being uncharacteristically "big government." They said the Legislature was taking a one-size-fits-all approach to defining morality and doing a disservice to parents and children by eliminating the choice for a more comprehensive education.

Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, described the House debate as "obnoxious" and before her vote Tuesday in the Senate Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake, called the bill "disturbing."

"You just took away the power of parents by having the state of Utah dictate what students are going to be learning," she said.

Wright said that despite what a minority of opponents would have people believe, the bill will not be a major shift for most sex education classes. He said that in voting for the bill, legislators merely recognized that there were a few things that needed to be changed.

"A lot of our districts are already teaching abstinence," he said. "This will help us set a path in the future where our curriculum doesn't get hijacked."

While explaining his opposing vote, Sen. Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake, speculated that the bill would lead to an increased number of teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections and result in a deficient curriculum. He said senators were being "naive" if they thought that children weren't being exposed to images of adult sexual activity over the Internet from a young age and added that those experiences lead to confusion about sexuality that may or may not be able to be addressed in the home.

"We've been discussing this as though every child has the benefit of two loving parents who are ready to have a conversation," he said. "That is not the case. There are kids in our community that do not have that luxury."

Sen. Patricia Jones, D-Salt Lake, asked what problem the bill was attempting to solve. She emphasized the opt-in requirement in current law and added that every parent she has spoken with about the bill has allowed their student to participate in classes.

"What this is is a mandate against reality," she said.

But Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Lehi, said it was important to define what role schools and parents play in the education of a child. He said there is something wrong with parents sending their children to school to learn morals and sexuality and schools sending students home to learn how to read.

"Something is out of whack," he said.

Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, also questioned the role of schools in sex education, saying that he has a problem with what are essentially complete strangers teaching children the most sensitive issues that belong in the home.

Three Senate Republicans joined all seven Senate Democrats in opposing HB363, which passed with a vote of 19-10.

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com