SALT LAKE CITY — A controversial sex education bill is putting Utah in a state of political déjà vu and has some questioning the motives of lawmakers.
An online petition urging Gov. Gary Herbert to veto HB363 has gathered tens of thousands of signatures — with more appearing by the hour — and a concerned population has taken to email and social media to voice their support of, or opposition to, preserving comprehensive sex education in Utah schools.
Herbert was not available for comment Friday, but a spokeswoman said the governor's office has received thousands of calls, emails and letters regarding HB363. Herbert has said that he will not be swayed by mass email campaigns and would make a decision based on what is the best policy for the state of Utah.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, emphasizes that sex education should primarily take place in the home. If signed into law, schools would be banned from teaching about contraceptives, sexual activity outside of marriage and homosexuality.
During the legislative session, Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, expressed concern that lawmakers had voted for the bill to better position themselves against conservative challengers in the November elections. He said after the vote in the House, some of his Republican colleagues who voted in favor of HB363 approached him privately to express their opposition to the bill.
Harry Caines, a Logan father of three, had similar suspicions. He described the bill as "religious grandstanding" and suggested it was not a coincidence that HB363 passed just one week before political parties hold their caucuses for the 2012 election.
"This was red meat to throw to the caucus goers," he said.
In 2000, Wright sponsored a nearly identical bill that was vetoed by then-Gov. Mike Leavitt at the urging of the State Board of Education. Leavitt's veto resulted in the requirement of parents to opt-in their children for sex education courses, a key provision of current law that many opponents say makes HB363 unnecessary.
After sponsoring the 2000 House bill, Wright ran for and was elected to the state Senate.
This time around, the State School Board has not taken a formal position on HB363. But on Thursday, State Superintendent Larry Shumway said curriculum decisions are best made at the district level. The Utah Parent Teacher Association has stated its intent to urge Herbert to veto the bill and concerned Utahns have gone online in droves crying foul.
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis described the bill as the Legislature "throwing common sense down the tube." An overwhelming majority — estimated at 90 percent — of parents choose to opt-in their children for sex education courses and Dabakis said the Republican lawmakers are dangerously alienating their voter base to appease small political groups.
"The Republican Party has been completely taken over by extremists," he said. "The legislators are more concerned about them than they are their own constituents."
Utah Democrats on Friday joined the growing number of groups to issue a statement calling for a veto of the bill. Dabakis said the decision puts the governor in a catch-22, pitting him against a moderate challenger in November if he signs the bill and drawing the ire of conservative groups during the primary if he vetoes.
"My guess is he won't (veto)," Dabakis said. "He can't. He doesn't have the courage, politically, to veto this."
When asked about the petition, Caines said it could gather 5 million signatures and still not equal the power of legislators.
"I don't think petitions really mean anything," he said. "The only petition that counts is on Election Day."
Rep. Stewart Barlow, R-Fruit Heights, has received some feedback — mostly in opposition — since the bill's passage, but said that in talking with constituents most people feel better about the bill. He said the correspondence with opponents has been valuable, but he maintains that the HB363 is good policy.
"With all legislation you look at the pros and cons," he said.
Barlow downplayed the effect that the bill would have on curriculum. He said the bill still allows for instruction on physiology and anatomy but prevents more graphic information from entering the curriculum, like the various forms of contraceptives or the intricacies of sexual intercourse.
Wright could not be reached for comment Friday, but made similar comments after the bill passed both chambers of the Legislature.
"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."
Brenda Hales, associate superintendent for instructional services with the State Office of Education, disagreed, saying the bill has the potential to be a major change. Only four districts currently teach an abstinence-only curriculum and HB363 allows for sex education to be discontinued entirely.
Hales is not surprised by the public response to the bill. She said whenever the question of sex in schools is raised, there is a lot of discussion and packed board meetings.
"Sex education is a lightning rod for opinions," she said, "and there are as many opinions as there are people."
Kael Fischer, a research assistant professor of pathology at the University of Utah and father of two, signed the online petition and said schools should be a safe place for factual information. He expressed concern that under the bill's terms, health teachers would not be able to respond honestly to questions and students would lack valuable information on safe sex and sexually transmitted diseases.
"I don't think legislating ignorance is a very good idea," he said. "I think politicians should pay attention to this one. They stepped over the line."
Fischer was impressed with the comprehensive sex education that his daughter received in California. He said with or without the bill, he would make sure his son has the information he needs. But not all parents may be willing, or able, to discuss the facts behind public health issues like teen pregnancy and communicable disease.
"It's something I want my son's peers to know about," he said.
Caines called the bill "nonsensical" and said it is counter-productive to the goal of reducing teen pregnancy. Sex education, he said, provides crucial information to teens on the risks of sexual activity, like the correlations between teen pregnancy and poverty, that inform the decision to abstain and that the average parent is not capable of discussing with their children.
"I don't believe they have the numbers that teenagers should be presented with," he said. "This is information that educators have and that is the best way to accomplish the goals that the Legislature, with this short-sighted bill, are trying to accomplish."
Like many parents, Caines said he is concerned about the information presented to his children at school. For that reason, he said, sex education should neither be banned nor mandated but should leave the choice to parents to opt-in or opt-out their children, as current Utah law allows.