Late in the evening on Friday, March 16, Utah Governor Gary Herbert (R) vetoed House Bill 363, an abstinence-only-until-marriage bill that would have banned instruction on contraception and removed the requirement to teach sex education in schools. Sponsored by Representative Bill Wright (R-Holden), the bill sought to prohibit instructional materials from Planned Parenthood from being taught in schools by limiting the sexual health information that could be provided to students. Among other requirements, HB 363 would have required human sexuality instruction to “teach and stress . . . the importance of abstinence from all sexual activity before marriage and fidelity after marriage as the only sure methods for preventing certain communicable diseases.”
The bill first passed the Utah House of Representatives on February 23 by a vote of 45 to 28, with 11 Republican members joining all 17 Democrats in opposing the bill. The approved legislation would have amended the state’s education code to prohibit instruction in or the advocacy of:
- the intricacies of intercourse, sexual stimulation, or erotic behavior;
- contraceptive methods or devices; or
- sexual activity outside of marriage.
Current lawalready prohibits instruction in the intricacies of sexual activity and “the advocacy of” homosexuality, contraception, and sex outside of marriage; however, instruction can address these topics. According to the Utah State Office of Education, teachers are required to emphasize abstinence but are allowed to provide instruction in “areas of contraception and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.” Under the same law, however, instructors are prohibited from responding to spontaneous questions from students that relate to any “means or methods that facilitate or encourage the violation of any state or federal criminal law by a minor or adult.” In Utah, consensual sexual intercourse outside of marriage is illegal.
HB 363 also would have required the State Board of Education to recommend abstinence-only-until-marriage instructional materials for use in the classroom—as well as banned it from recommending any instructional materials other than those teaching abstinence. The board would have been required to recommend materials in consultation with parents. Furthermore, such materials would have had to include a parent education component to assist parents in teaching the topic to their children. Finally, the bill would have amended the measure prohibiting instructors from responding to spontaneous questions from students, so long as the response was consistent with all provisions under the law.
Debate on the House floor centered on the issue of ethics. Bill-sponsor Wright argued that the legislation helped to uphold traditional values: “We’ve been culturally watered down to think we have to teach about sex, about having sex and how to get away with it, which is intellectually dishonest. Why don’t we just be honest with them upfront that sex outside of marriage is devastating?”
Representative Brian King (D–Salt Lake City) opposed the bill, arguing that it would provide a disservice to young people. “Many students will have sex before marriage despite their parents’ wishes. We owe it to our sons and daughters and to their future partners not to stick our heads in the sand,” commented King. “In truth, few of us are up to the task of effectively teaching our kids ourselves the things they need to know about sex.”
Leading state education associations including the Utah Parent Teachers Association and Utah Education Association strongly opposed the bill, arguing that it limited parental choice in determining the sexual health information that their children received. Local advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Utah, the Alliance for a Better UTAH, and Equality Utah also voiced opposition.
“Our students are best served by programs that educate and inform, not ones that dangerously limit information and mislead,” stated Karen McCreary, executive director, and Marina Lowe, legislative and policy director, of the ACLU of Utah in an opinion editorial published in the Salt Lake Tribune. “The truth is that we can’t be with our children all the time, but we can make sure that our schools give our students the tools they need to make informed and healthy decisions as they grow into adults.” A small but vocal minority supported the bill, including conservative Utah organizations such as the Sutherland Institute and the Utah Eagle Forum.
The State Senate passed the bill on March 6 and the House later confirmed it. Community members overwhelmingly responded in protest to the bill’s passage, sending an outpouring of letters, emails, and phone calls to the governor’s office urging him to veto the bill. Ally Isom, a spokeswoman for the governor, reported that the office received approximately 8,000 pieces of communication from constituents on the issue. On Wednesday, March 14, the Alliance for a Better UTAH organized a rally in the rotunda of the capitol building calling for the bill’s veto. Nearly 400 protesters attended, holding signs that read “Veto HB363” and “Education Not Ignorance.” Zoë Dietner, a 17-year-old student from West High School in Salt Lake City spoke during the rally, voicing her opposition to the bill’s passage: “I am reminded why we need sex education every time I get on Facebook and see a girl I knew in elementary school posting pictures of her ultrasound.”
Days before the rally, new polling data released by Brigham Young Universityshowed that 58 percent of respondents believed Utah schools should teach about contraception. The poll, conducted by the university’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, surveyed 472 registered voters. “The thing that was interesting to us was such a strong majority believed public schools should teach about contraceptives,” commented BYU assistant professor of political science Chris Karpowitz. “Utah is a fairly conservative place, and you might have assumed that this would go in the other direction.”
The results of the poll reflect the fact that the majority of Utah parents do give permission for their children to receive sex education in school. Under Utah law, parents must opt their children in to sex education courses. The State Office of Education estimates that 92 to 95 percent of parents give permission for such instruction; and only a small number of Utah school districts currently teach abstinence-only-until-marriage, including Canyons, Jordan, Nebo, and Provo.
After closely reviewing both sides of the issue, Governor Herbert chose to veto the legislation, stating that “HB 363 simply goes too far” to restrict the choices of parents. “Existing law respects the ability of Utah parents to choose if and how their student will receive classroom instruction on [sex education] topics. . . . If HB 363 were to become law, parents would no longer have the option the overwhelming majority is currently choosing for their children. I am unwilling to conclude that the State knows better than Utah’s parents as to what is best for their children,” said the governor in a written statement. “In order for parents to take on more responsibility, they need more information, more involvement, and more choice—not less. I cannot sign a bill that deprives parents of their choice.”
Utah legislators have the option to override the veto. To do so, the legislature would have to call itself back into session and garner two-thirds of the vote in both chambers. However, local policy analysts say an override is unlikely. The bill did not receive two-thirds majority when it passed in the House and therefore would have to win support from additional legislators. Already, some state representatives have expressed regret for passing the legislation.
“I think this is one of those bills which was not a bill that came about because constituents were dissatisfied and pushing their state legislators to do something,” commented Matthew Burbank, associate professor of political science at the University of Utah. “I think this largely came about because state legislators, for whatever reasons, felt like this was something they wanted to do.”
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Utah House Bill 363, “Health Education Amendments,” as enrolled, Utah State Legislature, 2012 General Session, 7 March 2012, accessed 23 March 2012, <http://le.utah.gov/~2012/bills/hbillenr/hb0363.pdf>.
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