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Guv received nearly 10,000 letters, emails, calls about sex ed bill

Published May 14, 2012 9:40 am

Tribune analysis • The governor got 9,708 messages in 3 weeks leading up to his veto.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Sex, politics and education is an explosive combination.

So explosive, in fact, that a bill that would have scaled back sex education in Utah schools inspired 9,708 emails, phone calls and letters to the governor's office in the three weeks leading up to his veto of it earlier this year, according to a Salt LakeTribune analysis of communications obtained through an open-records request.

Parents, grandparents and teens pleaded with the governor to both sign and not sign it. Some letter-writers identified themselves as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Republican delegates and/or conservatives. Many were polite and formal; others were crude and threatening.

Of those who wrote or called, about nine opposed the bill for every one who supported it.

Ally Isom, a spokeswoman for Gov. Gary Herbert, said he isn't one to take a public opinion poll before making a decision, but the responses that flooded his office weren't brushed off.

"I'd certainly say the sheer volume creates an impression and one which cannot be ignored," Isom said.

She said most of the emails and letters were uniquely written, as opposed to form letters sent by interest groups. She said such letters tend to carry more weight than those written from templates, which "lack the authenticity of a real citizen."

Matthew Burbank, a University of Utah associate professor of political science, said the bill, HB363, didn't grab a huge amount of attention as it moved through the legislative process because many Utahns seemed to think it wouldn't pass. When it did, they started getting involved.

The bill would have allowed Utah school districts to drop sex education and would have prohibited those that kept it from teaching teens about contraception.

"I think one of the things that clearly stood out about this is there was an awful lot of individual interest," Burbank said. "That's the kind of thing that tends to have more of an impact."

Liz Zentner, president-elect of the Utah PTA, which opposed the bill, said she believes the outcry contributed to Herbert's decision to veto it.

"I don't know if I've ever seen an issue bring so many people out before," Zentner said. "These were parents voicing their opinions, and I bet you most of them were talking about having their rights taken away. He listened."

Misunderstandings • Gayle Ruzicka, head of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum, which backed the bill, said many Utahns misunderstood it. Ruzicka and bill sponsor Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, have long said the bill would have meant more choice.

"People believed that we were taking sex education out of the schools," Ruzicka said. "They had no idea what was really going on." She said many people who contacted her believed the bill mandated erasing sex ed entirely, when it actually would have given districts a choice of whether to offer it.

For example, one letter-writer, who was not identified in documents provided to The Tribune because she revealed personal medical information, wrote on March 8: "I am appalled that the recent Sex Education bill passed both the Utah Senate and the House. This is forcing the states majority religious beliefs of 'no sex until marriage' on the entire public school population."

But TheTribune also found misunderstandings among a number of those who supported the bill, in analyzing the letters and emails.

"Please sign the bill," Kathy Rockhill wrote on March 10. "Parents can teach their children about homosexuality and birth control. Don't require every child to hear about it through public education."

In reality, under current law, parents opt their children into sex education. No student is forced to take it.

In vetoing the bill, Herbert said he felt it would have limited parental choice. Had it passed, parents no longer would have been able to opt their kids into lessons including contraception. Districts also already can decide whether to teach abstinence-only or include lessons about contraception while still stressing abstinence.

But Burbank said for those who didn't fully understand current law, "It appeared as if what the bill was doing was saying sex education is something that parents should do and not schools."

Isom also said she felt there were a number of misunderstandings in the letters.

"It's not uncommon for those who contact our office to not be as familiar as ideal with specific bill content," Isom said.

Many letter-writers, however, seemed to understand the issues well enough, and a number of common themes emerged.

Of the letters and emails received, writers mentioned the term "teen pregnancy" at least 323 times. They mentioned homosexuality about 234 times. And they wrote about sexually transmitted diseases a whopping 1,162 times.

"This bill would result in higher teen pregnancies and more STDs and should be vetoed to assure that the youth of Utah have the information they need to deal responsibly with their sexuality," wrote Robert Plachta on March 10.

Those on the other side of the debate also brought up those issues.

"The problems we see in society (teenage parents, single parents, neglected children, std's) are not because of a LACK of enough/appropriate sex education. It's a lack of morals," Ashley R. Wright of North Ogden wrote on March 9 in urging the governor to sign the bill.

Mormons, delegates sound off • Bill sponsor Wright said all those who contacted him to oppose the bill seemed to fit into one of four categories: pornography shop operators; people who support promiscuous behavior; those who admitted they teach their own kids abstinence-only but feel others aren't as intelligent and need to learn about contraception; and "intellectuals."

But in letters to the governor, many Utahns identified themselves politically or religiously.

"I'm a SL County Republican delegate, a church-attending, tithe-paying LDS member, a father of two teenage children, and a pediatric RN at Primary Children's Medical Center, so I think I have standing when I say 'VETO HB363,'" wrote Paul Brown Hollingshaus on March 8.

Letter-writers mentioned the terms "LDS," "Mormon" or "Saint" at least 243 times.

Also, the word "delegate" was mentioned about 24 times, in many cases because the letter-writer identified him or herself as one.

Herbert announced his veto on a Friday night, the day after Republican caucuses met to choose delegates, though Isom has said the timing of his announcement was not tied to that.

In the letters, a number of people threatened Herbert with their votes. Letter-writers implied at least 117 times that Herbert's decision to sign or not to sign could influence whether they voted for him for re-election.

"I voted for you despite the UDOT debacle, and have not regretted it," Bette Popa wrote on March 10. "But if you do not veto HB363 abstinence only bill, I will not vote for you in the future."

Burbank, at the University of Utah, said it's unlikely such threats make much of a difference.

"The thing about being governor, obviously, is you've heard that many, many times about a whole range of issues," Burbank said.

"That, I think, is one of the reasons why Gov. Herbert and a lot of governors," he said, "have to take the attitude that at some point you sit down, take the information available and make the best decision you can knowing whatever decision you make, some people are going to be unhappy."

lschencker@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lschencker

Utahns sound off on sex ed bill

Here are excerpts of letters sent to the Utah governor's office regarding HB363, a bill that would have allowed school districts to drop sex education and prohibited those that kept it from teaching students about contraception. The letters were provided by the governor's office to The Salt Lake Tribune in response to an open-records request. The Tribune is identifying occupations and/or positions of the letter-writers when they identified those in their letters.

"Please sign HB-363. We cannot let certain liberal groups take away the rights of conservatives. Sexed should be taught in detail by the parents!"

— Laurie Barlow, March 12

"I just wanted to remind you that the Utah caucus night is Thursday. I already have around 20-30 people committed to voting for me as a delegate. If you veto the sex ed bill or do not make a decision by then, I vow to fight tooth and nail as a delegate to make sure you are not re-elected."

— Neil Sharp, March 12

"Please do not allow liberals who do not care about our children and want them to be sexualized, manipulate you into vetoing SB363 [sic]."

— Dalane England, March 12

"Silence about safer sex will do nothing to reduce the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases among young people." — Linda R. Smith, March 12

"HB363 comes across as a morality bill and not an education bill. It seems it is a bill that intends to regulate a religious view. Utah is a multi-religion state. Our constitution guarantees we have a separation of church and state. Please keep that in mind with this bill and other regulatory bills."

— Noall Knighton, vice chair Weber County Republican Party, but writing as an individual, March 10

"As a childbirth educator, I have had many couples that I have taught over the past twenty years. It is astounding to me the lack of understanding of their own bodies that many of the women I have taught have had ... I am an advocate for honest truthfulness in the PUBLIC arena regarding Sex Education in the school system." — Michelle Scharf, March 10

"I am a family physician and have delivered babies in Utah for 27 years. I am totally opposed to HB 363. I have taken care of many teen pregnancies in this state. When I ask the parents if they discussed sex education, many say yes: 'I told her she can't get pregnant before she gets married.' So, the teen-age daughter responds, 'I thought I couldn't get pregnant until I was married, so I thought it was safe.'"

— Camille Collett, Co-President, Utah Women's Section Utah Medial Association, March 11

"As an LDS youth, I have made to personal [sic] decision to be abstinent, as have most of my friends, but many people my age have sex, regardless of how much they are taught about abstinence. These students need to be taught about birth control so they don't have STD's or unwanted pregnancies."

— Name withheld because of age, March 10

"If everyone could practice abstinence before marriage, that would be wonderful, but that is not reality."

— Rev. Mary S. Janda, Associate Rector All Saints Episcopal Church, Salt Lake City, March 10

"Please do not veto HB363! Many liberals in this state are angry, but I fear those who are angry and speaking out against this bill are a the [sic] minority here in utah."

— Rachel Dietrich, March 7

"We need local control of our schools and we don't need the liberal left telling us how to teach sexual permissiveness, early childhood sexualization and homosexual perversion. It's time to put your foot down and stand up for family values."

— Emily Tolton, March 12

"If you sign on to this abstinence bill, we will vote you out of office so fast, and so permanently, you will not know what happened."

— Larry Dale Hughes, March 12 —

Read letter excerpts

Go to the bottom of the story to see excerpts from some of the letters received by the governor's office about HB363.