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A bill to allow Utah schools to drop sex education classes and prohibit instruction in the use of contraception in those that keep the courses moved significantly closer to becoming law Wednesday. The House passed HB363 by a 45-28 vote after a late-afternoon debate that centered largely on lawmakers' differing definitions of morality.
"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," said bill sponsor Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden. "Why don't we just be honest with them upfront that sex outside marriage is devastating?"
It was a viewpoint that met with equal conviction from those opposed to the bill.
"You cannot speak of abstinence without talking to students about methods of birth control that are not certain, about protecting oneself from [sexually transmitted diseases] and all the things that can happen in a negative sense to a young person who engages in sex ," said Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay. "It's really immoral not to teach kids about what the consequences are."
Over the course of nearly an hour, lawmakers took turns trying to change the bill. Ultimately, the version the House passed would allow school districts to forgo teaching about sex altogether.
Lawmakers also, however, changed the bill on the House floor to prohibit schools that continue to teach sex education from instructing students in "the use of contraceptive methods or devices." It was a change from the version that passed out of committee earlier this month that would have prohibited "instruction in the advocacy or encouragement of the use of contraceptive methods or devices."
Wright said the version of the bill that passed Wednesday would prohibit instruction in contraception, although teachers could respond to student questions about the matter.
It would be a big shift from current law, which prohibits only the advocacy of contraceptive use. Current law requires high schools to teach sex education, allowing them to choose whether to simply stress abstinence or teach abstinence-only.
Rep. Rebecca Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, said it's a system that already allows adequate local control. And Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, noted that parents already have the choice not to put their children in sex education.
But Wright countered that current safeguards aren't enough. He pointed to a Planned Parenthood program that some schools have used to teach fifth- and sixth-graders about puberty, though the state school board pulled its approval of that program nearly a year ago after complaints.
Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, also opposed the bill, comparing it to discussions of global warming as a hoax. He called it the type of thing that makes "reasonable people think we have lost it up here on the Hill."
Many students will have sex before marriage despite their parents' wishes, he said.
"We owe it to our sons and daughters and to their future partners not to stick our heads in the sand," King said. "In truth, few of us are up to the task of effectively teaching our kids ourselves the things they need to know about sex."
King also noted that not everyone in Utah believes premarital sex is harmful, and it may not be right to "force our beliefs down the throats" of those Utahns.
But, in the end, more conservative members of the body won out. Eleven Republicans joined all 17 House Democrats in voting against the bill.
"Maybe you've noticed that the world has figured out how to populate itself over thousands of years without sex education," said Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper. He said it's "not good enough" to just avoid advocacy of contraception while teaching students about it.
Lawmakers also amended the bill on the floor to reinforce parents' roles in the development and recommendation of abstinence-only materials and to require those materials include components to help parents teach their kids about the topic.
The bill now moves to the Senate.
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