If Gov. Gary Herbert wants an opinion on whether to sign a recently passed sex education bill, he has plenty to choose from: Lawmakers have made their cases, more than 35,000 people have signed an online petition urging Herbert to veto the bill, and various groups have taken sides.
On Monday, a new Brigham Young University poll joined that list. The poll shows that 58 percent of 472 voters surveyed agree or strongly agree with the statement, "Public schools in Utah should teach about the use of contraceptives."
The sex education bill, HB363, would prohibit schools from teaching teens about contraceptives and allow school districts to drop sex education classes altogether.
"The thing that was interesting to us was such a strong majority believed public schools should teach about contraceptives," said Chris Karpowitz, an assistant professor of political science at BYU. "Utah is a fairly conservative place, and you might have assumed that this would have gone in the other direction."
The poll, out of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, also found, however, that the group most opposed to allowing schools to teach about contraceptives was "strong Republicans." Among all 472 responses over the past 10 days, about 30 percent said they disagreed or strongly disagreed with teaching about contraceptives in school. Among strong Republicans, about 63 percent disagreed with teaching the topic.
"I think it means the governor has a tough decision to make, and he has to decide whether he's going to side with the strongest Republicans who seem to have the most opposition to this and that's an important group for any Republican governor in the state of Utah or is he going to side with the larger majority that seems to support this," Karpowitz said of teaching contraception in schools.
He said a margin of error for the data was not available Monday because it was so new, but is typically 3 to 4 percentage points on such polls.
Ally Isom, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Monday that Herbert likely will make a decision about the bill next week "following a deliberative and thoughtful process, weighing what constitutes good public policy." Isom also said last week Herbert would "do due diligence to review it, hear both sides, sort the facts from the rumors and make the best decision based on policy, not politics."
But Matthew Burbank, an associate professor of political science at the University of Utah, believes politics will weigh on the governor when he makes a decision. Once Herbert's office officially receives the bill, he will have three options: sign it, veto it or allow it to pass into law without his signature though Burbank said it's relatively rare for governors to take that third option.
Burbank said he believes the governor will not veto the bill.
"He does not want problems with the most conservative elements of the Republican Party as he goes into the convention," Burbank said. "If that group of people is unhappy, in some ways, that's his worst nightmare, so I think there's very little chance he's going to veto it."
Burbank also said he wasn't surprised to hear that a majority of those surveyed in the BYU poll support teaching about contraception in schools.
"I think this is one of those bills which was not a bill that came about because constituents were dissatisfied and pushing their state legislators to do something," Burbank said. "I think this largely came about because state legislators, for whatever reasons, felt like this was something they wanted to do."
HB363 sponsor Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, has said he decided to run the bill after discovering the State Office of Education had endorsed materials for schools from Planned Parenthood that linked to inappropriate sites. The State Office, however, last year officially pulled its endorsement of those materials, which were for maturation programs for fifth- and sixth-graders, not sex ed, and instead left the choice of which materials to use up to districts. Wright has said no school district asked him for the option to drop sex ed before he ran the bill.
Wright said Monday the poll results don't surprise him. He said if voters really knew what was being taught in Utah schools they might feel differently. "They have no idea what's being taught," he said.
Wright also said he believes many of those who oppose the bill do so because of a national agenda to include human sexuality in Common Core standards. The standards outline what students should learn in each grade to be ready for college and careers and were developed as part of a states-led initiative.
"The majority of people weighing in are not from Utah and being motivated by a national movement because [the bill is] very disruptive to them accomplishing their goal of getting a national core with human sexuality," Wright said.
Utah education leaders have emphasized repeatedly that the Common Core includes only math and language arts, and that Utah would not accept such standards in health or other more subjective areas if they became available.
As of Thursday afternoon, an online petition urging the governor to veto the bill at SignOn.org, started by a Murray school bus driver, had nearly 37,000 signatures. Meanwhile, the Sutherland Institute and Utah Eagle Forum continue to urge Herbert to sign the bill.
The BYU poll also found the strongest agreement that contraception should be taught in schools was among Democrats. "Not so strong Republicans" were nearly split, with 43 percent agreeing schools should teach about contraceptives and 38 percent disagreeing.