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Protest over critical race theory hits House floor, Democrats stage walkout

The GOP-led resolution to ban it in Utah’s K-12 schools is symbolic.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) House Democrats walking off the floor as Republicans move to debate resolution on teaching critical race theory during a special session at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 19, 2021.

Democrats walked off the Utah House floor en masse on Wednesday afternoon in protest of resolutions brought by House Republicans on the teaching of race in Utah’s schools and over gun rights.

The dramatic move capped a tumultuous span of about 60 hours in Utah politics.

It all began Monday morning, when Gov. Spencer Cox refused to put two items on the special session agenda, despite furious lobbying behind the scenes from Republicans in both the House and the Senate. One would have banned the teaching of critical race theory in K-12 schools (it is not currently taught in Utah schools) and the other would have made Utah a Second Amendment Sanctuary state.

On Tuesday afternoon, GOP leadership in both houses used a byzantine maneuver in the Utah Constitution that allowed them to call an “extraordinary session” so they could consider resolutions on both issues. The extraordinary sessions are typically reserved for the Utah Senate to confirm the governor’s nominees.

“The Republicans are engaging in political theater. It’s pandering to their base,” said House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, shortly after his party walked off the floor in protest.

“We felt the most eloquent way we can raise our voices the loudest is to walk out and not be part of this sham process,” King said.

A significant hurdle for those on either side is the understanding of what critical race theory is and what it purports to do.

“I have no idea what it is,” said Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, who sponsored the Senate version of the resolution. “I looked up two dozen definitions and they all were different.”

Betty Sawyer, president of the Odgen chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People at a press conference on the Capitol steps that was invaded by counter protesters waving signs that said “CRT in schools is systemic racism,” and “Don’t teach my children to be racist.”

“How many of you know what critical race theory is? Raise your hand?” Sawyer said. “I look around and see these signs, and it’s evident to me that the loudest voices on this are not the most knowledgeable,” she said.

Speaking to an all-Republican chamber, Rep. Paul Ray condemned the walkout as a display of partisanship.

“I just want to publicly state how disappointing it is that a party would walk off the floor and refuse to represent the constituents that elected them to be here, to be their voice,” said Ray, who is a Republican from Clearfield. “It’s sad when that happens.”

Messaging campaign

For weeks, lawmakers had their emails and social media bombarded by messages from angry parents pushing against critical race theory. The pressure campaign was orchestrated primarily by the group Utah Parents United. The group also led a drive to oppose mask mandates in Utah’s schools during the coronavirus pandemic.

The messaging campaign worked, as the GOP-led House and Senate brought similar resolutions to the floor for debate Wednesday. They went around Cox, who urged lawmakers to slow down.

“There is a growing effort around this issue. The state office is starting to roll this out,” said House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville. “When an issue like this rises to the level of concern that our constituents feel needs to be addressed, that’s what we do here.”

Critical race theory is not currently part of Utah’s core education standards. A spokesperson for the state school board tells The Tribune that there is no effort to implement the teaching, but there is a move to provide training for equity and inclusion for teachers, which has raised concerns by some that the training could use some elements of critical race theory.

“Do not ban something that is not happening in our schools,” said Michelle Love-Day, during a press conference opposing the effort by lawmakers.

Board homework

The move was intended to send a clear message to the State Board of Education that if it doesn’t address these concerns, and soon, lawmakers are ready and willing to step in.

The resolutions approved by the House and Senate task the board with reviewing standards for curriculum. They both ask it to exclude anything that teaches one race is either superior or inferior to another, that any individual should be discriminated against or that a person’s moral character is influenced by their race. The board is also directed to report back to lawmakers, but there’s no deadline.

The resolution’s sponsor, Rep. Steve Christiansen, said the United States is not perfect but has “made great progress” toward its ideal of treating all men and women as equals, pointing to the Civil War and the end of slavery and to the civil rights movement. And while his resolution has stirred controversy, he argued everyone should be able to get behind the statement.

“I think we can agree that those kinds of things should not be taught in our educational institutions in this in this great state,” Christiansen, R-West Jordan, said.

— Tribune Reporter Bethany Rodgers contributed to this report.

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