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Hundreds of Utahns filled the state Capitol's cavernous Rotunda Wednesday afternoon, chanting and holding signs in hopes of sending one simple message to the governor: Veto sex-education bill HB363.
"HB363 takes Utah dangerously backward," Maryann Martindale, executive director of the Alliance for a Better UTAH, told the crowd. "Urge the governor to stop listening to a small but very vocal minority."
The alliance, a nonprofit, progressive group, organized the rally for Wednesday in hopes of persuading the governor to veto the bill, which lawmakers passed last week. The bill would allow school districts to drop sex education classes and require those that keep the courses to teach abstinence only, meaning instruction in contraception would not be allowed.
During the rally, grandparents, parents, teens and children held colorful signs that read, "Veto HB363," "STDs don't save themselves for marriage" and "Education Not Ignorance." Between speakers, the crowd unleashed thunderous chants of, "Veto!"
Brad Lancaster, of Tooele, who attended the rally with his wife and 5-year-old son, said it shouldn't be up to lawmakers what schools may teach.
"It's our decision as parents," Lancaster said, noting that parents already have choice under current law, which allows them to keep their kids out of sex education classes or ask their local school boards to offer abstinence-only. "We're being told by lawmakers what we can and can't have our children taught."
He said it's important that kids get accurate information, adding, "I don't want them being taught in a locker room by a 16-year-old kid."
Judy Babbitt, a Heber teacher's aide who attended the rally with three of her grown children, said, "We're confusing knowledge with promiscuity."
And Zoë Diener, a 17-year-old West High student and member of the Planned Parenthood Teen Council, spoke to the crowd, saying she sees kids every day who would be affected if HB363 becomes law.
"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," Diener said.
Gov. Gary Herbert has said he will likely decide what to do next week. On Tuesday evening, Herbert said he was in the process of "doing some analysis." He said he recognizes it's an emotional issue and appreciates all the input.
"At the end of the day I've got to sort through all the pros and cons and ultimately make the determination as governor what I think is in the best interest of Utah and Utah's families and is good policy for Utah going forward," Herbert said Tuesday evening. "I didn't create the legislation but I certainly will have a role to play in this as we move forward, so I will be very methodical and thoughtful about this."
Those at the rally Wednesday hoped to inform Herbert's decision.
After the event, many slipped their posters under the doors to the Governor's Office, which they had been informed before Wednesday would close, as scheduled, before the evening rally, said Ally Isom, a spokeswoman for the governor.
And before the rally, organizers delivered a printed version of an online petition urging the governor to veto the bill. As of Wednesday evening, the petition, at SignOn.org, had nearly 40,000 signatures.
But the petition has been a bone of contention with supporters of the bill, such as the Sutherland Institute and the Utah Eagle Forum, which have criticized it because anyone, anywhere in the world can sign a name to it, real or fake. In recent days, the Utah Eagle Forum has been asking Utahns to call the governor to show their support for the bill, saying in part, of the petition, "It is probable that most of the names are not real people."
Martindale, however, said rally organizers went through the petition before printing it out, pulling out-of-state signatures and signatures that were obviously fake (some had signed using names of Disney characters) and still had about 32,000 signatures.
"Despite what Gayle Ruzicka says, of the Utah Eagle Forum, I'm just a regular guy," said Paul Krueger, the Murray school bus driver who started the petition. He said after the rally, "I think these groups need to realize they're speaking for a small percentage of Utahns and they're absolutely dead wrong on this issue."
Rally speakers also included several Democratic lawmakers and Utah State Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis.
Contacted after the rally Wednesday, HB363 sponsor Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, said he's still suspicious of the petition. "I don't know whether I trust their self-audit," he said.
And he said he disagrees with those who say HB363 would threaten public health because it would ban teaching about contraceptives in sex education. He said teens who ignore messages of abstinence are just as likely to ignore messages about contraception.
"Abstinence would create the best public health," Wright said Wednesday evening.
Ruzicka, also contacted after the rally, said she doesn't believe the event will sway the governor as he has said he'll make his decision based on policy.
"That's the Democrats and the homosexual groups and some of the education establishment people that want him to veto that, and that's what they're going to do to get their message out, but I don't think that's going to make a difference," Ruzicka said. She also said she appreciates that those who oppose the bill have attempted to clean up the online petition, but she noted that there's no way to know how many more names appear to be real or from Utah but are not.
Isom said the Governor's Office has received between 6,000 and 7,000 calls, emails and letters on the bill, many of which have been uniquely drafted, rather than sent as form letters, which she said is "always given much more weight."
Since the bill's passage, groups including the Utah PTA, Utah Education Association and Utah State Democratic Party have also urged a veto.
Robert Gehrke contributed to this report.