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Sen. Chris Buttars has tried to eliminate any possibility that his bill questioning the validity of evolution could allow for religious instruction in the classroom - and avoid the legal risks associated with such teaching.
But religion is the reason he proposed the bill and religion drove most of the debate Friday, as the full Senate gave its initial approval to SB96.
Comments on the Senate floor commending God's creation of man and condemning atheists for pushing their "religion," could potentially end up as evidence in court should the bill become law.
Buttars, R-West Jordan, attempted to ward off a threatened lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union by amending his bill to explicitly say students should "consider opposing scientific viewpoints" and teachers should "stress that not all scientists agree on which scientific theory is correct." The word "scientific" did not appear in those statements beforehand.
But that amendment didn't satisfy the ACLU.
Two ACLU attorneys who attended Friday's debate said the bill is obviously fueled by a religious, not scientific, revulsion to Charles Darwin's theory. They contend that courts look not only at the letter of the law but the intent of lawmakers when determining if legislation is constitutional.
"We were disappointed in the vote," said Dani Eyer, executive director of the ACLU of Utah. "But we were sitting there watching them make our case in legislative history."
Buttars' bill would require teachers to say that scientists are not in agreement about theories explaining the "origins of life or the origins or present state of the human race" and that the state doesn't endorse any such theory.
"I challenge anyone to say that somewhere in those lines that I'm trying to promote religious philosophies," Buttars said. "My bill from the get-go never included anything about intelligent design, creationism or any faith-based philosophy."
Buttars said he decided to sponsor the bill after parents called him to complain about teachers who were telling their children that they evolved from "some lower species."
He said one woman told him that such classroom discussions "totally blew up their faith."
Legislative leaders expect SB96 to gain Senate approval on Monday. The bill would then need the approval of the House of Representatives and the signature of Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. before it became law. The preliminary Senate vote Friday was 17-12, with all eight Senate Democrats and four Republicans opposing the bill, including Senate Majority Leader Peter Knudson.
Knudson rejected comments by Buttars and Sen. Sheldon Killpack, R-Syracuse, that the opposition is driven by "secularists and atheists."
"I will tell you that is not the spirit by which we should be debating this legislation," Knudson said. "There is a place in life for evolution."
He said religious people may also believe in evolution, since "we don't know how God created the Earth."
Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake City, attempted to strip Buttars' bill of any reference to "origins of life," replacing it and similar statements with "scientific." Lawmakers shouldn't single out evolution, if the aim is for students to critically analyze scientific theories upon which some scientists disagree on, he said.
The amendment failed.
Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, and Sen. Patrice Arent, D-Murray, both voted against the bill, saying that the Legislature was "micromanaging" the elected members of the state Board of Education, who have already expressed their opposition to SB96.
Arent said: "It doesn't make sense to me for us to take on that role."