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One state senator, backed by a powerful conservative lobby, wants Utah public schools to teach "divine design" side by side with evolution, allowing students to decide which theory is more valid.

The decades-old debate expected to erupt during the next legislative session in January will also involve decades-old arguments, but with a new twist.

Some school officials believe teaching a divine design could violate the constitutionally protected separation of church and state.

"We don't teach religion in school," said Brett Moulding, curriculum director for the state Board of Education. "We don't believe this law would be in the best interest of public education."

But the moral-crusading group Eagle Forum, which has often flexed its muscle on Utah's Capitol Hill, argues a community has a right to teach its values to its children.

Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, plans to lead the fight for instruction of divine design in Utah public schools. He wants to defuse some of the expected controversy by avoiding the term "creationism" altogether.

Instead, he favors "divine design," sometimes called "intelligent design," which "doesn't preach religion," he said. "The only people who will be upset about this are atheists."

Supporters of intelligent design say nature is so complex that it could not have occurred without the guidance of some higher power, maybe God, maybe something else.

They say this differs from traditional creationists who believe that God created the Earth, and argue the distinction means its inclusion in public school curriculum would not violate church-state separation.

The Kansas School Board is now debating a new change to its science curriculum after hearing arguments from supporters of both evolution and intelligent design.

The Kansas board expects to make a decision by the end of the summer.

Other states across the country such as New York, Missouri, Georgia and Alabama continue to debate adding intelligent design to the curriculum.

Buttars plans to add Utah to that list of states by sponsoring a bill requiring educators to also tell students that some believe "a superior power" created the world.

Buttars, who regularly takes up moral debates, sponsored a 2004 state constitutional amendment that strengthened Utah's ban on same-sex marriage. His next target is evolution and its domination of the science curriculum.

''The divine design is a counter to the kids' belief that we all come from monkeys. Because we didn't,'' said the conservative Republican and retired director of a private school for troubled boys. "It shocks me that our schools are teaching evolution as fact."

Buttars doesn't disregard evolution completely, rather he believes God is the creator, but His creations have evolved within their own species.

"We get different types of dogs and different types of cats, but you have never seen a 'dat,' '' he said.

Buttars will have the backing of the Eagle Forum, led by conservative activist Gayle Ruzicka, who has independently pushed for divine design education in the schools.

"What an insult to teach children that they have evolved from a lower life to what they are now, and then they go home and learn that they are someone special, a child of God," Ruzicka said. "This is not right."

Buttars and the Eagle Forum can expect resistance from some education groups.

The state education board is in the process of elaborating its position on evolution, after members of the public brought up intelligent design in a previous board meeting.

Evolution is part of the core curriculum for high school science teachers. Creationism or divine design is not.

That doesn't mean Utah teachers don't bring it up on their own.

Scott Berryessa, president of the Jordan Education Association, representing about 2,100 teachers, says he more often gets complaints from students and families upset that divine design is mentioned in the classroom.

"If either theory is shortchanged on exposure in Utah schools it would probably be the theory of evolution," Berryessa said. "Teachers wish that our Legislature would stop micromanaging the process of education - especially when it comes to issues as personal as these."

David Cox is both a legislator and a school teacher.

The Lehi Republican believes in evolution, but he believes God started the evolutionary process.

He says people are too easily offended when religion is mentioned in public, but he doesn't like the state dictating to teachers.

"I'm conflicted," Cox said. "But I want the teachers to have the freedom to say there are different philosophies."

Evolution vs. 'intelligent design'

* Public school science curriculum standards are evolving. Defenders of current evolution-based science curricula say the increasing clout of religious voters is behind a new movement to push creationism or intelligent design into the classroom. Critics of the status quo say current science curricula are biased and they point to a national movement to restore moral values in public institutions.

l Lawmakers in a growing number of states (at least nine at last count) have been looking at legislation related to teaching evolution in public schools.

l A third of Americans believe that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution is a well-supported scientific theory. And a third of Americans consider themselves biblical literalists who believe that the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word, according to a 2004 Gallup Poll.

Source: The National Conference of State Legislatures