SALT LAKE CITY — Despite a push from some Utah Republicans to ban the teaching of critical race theory in state schools, Gov. Spencer Cox did not include the issue in his call for a special session of the state Legislature set for Wednesday.
The governor also decided to pass — for now — on giving lawmakers an early chance at declaring Utah a "Second Amendment sanctuary," which would allow the state to oppose federal gun control measures state lawmakers believe violate the right to bear arms.
The governor decided to not include the two issues on Wednesday's special session agenda because he said they "would benefit from more time, thought, dialogue and input."
"While I'm sure someone might be able to point out differently, I can't remember these types of hot-button issues ever being put on a special session call," Cox wrote in a letter to legislators issued along with his call. "It's not that I disagree with the desire to act, but doing it the right way — and at the right time — will lead to better legislation."
Cox's decision to omit the ban on critical race theory and the declaration of Utah as a "Second Amendment sanctuary" does not mean Utah lawmakers won't address the issues in the future. It just will not be part of this week's special session.
Critical race theory, according to the American Bar Association, "that race is not biologically real but is socially constructed and socially significant." The theory also acknowledges "that racism is a normal feature of society and is embedded within systems and institutions, like the legal system, that replicates racial inequality. This dismisses the idea that racist incidents are aberrations but instead are manifestations of structural and systemic racism."
Nationwide, Republicans have taken a growing interest in banning critical race theory from schools. In Idaho, where lawmakers recently approved a ban, lawmakers argued the theory and similar teachings "exacerbate and inflame divisions on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin, or other criteria in ways contrary to the unity of the nation and the well-being of the state of Idaho and its citizens."
The Idaho law prohibits public schools — including public universities — from including any teachings that say "any sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin is inherently superior or inferior."
The bill also prohibited teachings that suggest "individuals, by virtue of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin, are inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by other members of the same sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin."
"Although critical race theory has been around for decades, it has gained recent notoriety. I have spent several weeks studying and talking to parents, teachers and education officials about this issue," Cox wrote in his letter to lawmakers.
"I am on record saying that (critical race theory) has no place in our curriculum," the governor added. "The difficulty, however, comes in defining terms and making sure that we are never stifling thought or expression — and that we make sure our children learn both the best of our past as well as our mistakes so we don't repeat them.
While I'm sure someone might be able to point out differently, I can't remember these types of hot-button issues ever being put on a special session call.
–Gov. Spencer Cox
"We must also make it abundantly clear that Utah is a place that welcomes everyone regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or any other background. It is who we are, and it may be easy to lose sight of that during a knee-jerk debate."
Senate leader thinks waiting will increase tensions
Legislative leaders weren't pleased by Cox's decision to push pause on that debate.
Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, told the Deseret News on Monday he disagreed with Cox, saying he'd rather see the issues — especially critical race theory — on the agenda to avoid drawing out the contention and instead "put it behind us and move on."
"It's been an issue that's been around for a couple of years, but it really didn't become acute until the State School Board hired a diversity officer and in the training I think some of the ... charter schools or others started to present critical race theory and the 1619 Project," Adams said.
The 1619 Project is a New York Times Magazine initiative to reframe the country's history by "placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the center of the national narrative."
Rep. Chris Stewart slammed the 1619 Project in a Deseret News op-ed on Sunday, saying it would "redefine the birth of the nation not at the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, but as 1619, the year slaves first arrived in North America." He also called critical race theory the "evil twin" of the 1619 Project.
Both critical race theory and the 1619 project, Adams said, are "very controversial" and they cause "contention," leading to tons of calls and emails from Utahns.
"My theory is that by letting this continue — even though it hasn't been an issue until now — to let it continue for nine months only makes it more divisive and draw it out longer," the Senate president said.
"I think we have thoughtful people that could have come up with a reasonable balance ... Nobody wants to discriminate. None of us do, especially after what we've seen happen over the last year or two. But on the other hand, how do we handle that and how that's managed is a really big deal when you look at the 1619 Project," he said.
It's the "contention," Adams said, "is what we're trying to do away with. And if we could just do that in a special session this week, it would just save I think a lot of hard feelings on both sides of the issue and I'd just hate to see that kind of animosity continue for nine months."
Asked if critical race theory is actually a problem in Utah and if it's being taught, Adams said those types of questions are what have flooded lawmakers' inboxes.
"The question is, is it taught? Well if it's not taught then who cares if we eliminate it? If it is taught then we probably ought to deal with it. And if it's not taught now will it be in the future?" Adams said. "Those are all questions we're getting from our constituency that those are the things we're trying to resolve and what we just make it clear that's not taught, won't be taught, the issue goes away."
From January 2020:
Cox said he's had "very productive conversations" with Sydnee Dickson, state superintendent of public instruction, and Mark Huntsman, chairman of the Utah Board of Education "regarding their efforts on (the theory)."
"I'm pleased to report they have been working on this for several months in a very thoughtful and collaborative manner. They have asked that we delay any action on this issue until the general session so they have an opportunity to fulfill their constitutional role and work with educators and parents to get it right," Cox said. "I believe they deserve that opportunity and will likely craft a better solution than we could in such a short time."
The Sutherland Institute, a Utah-based conservative think tank, issued a public statement on Monday along with Cox's special session letter, saying the think tank "shares the concern" over critical race theory and also "recognizes the lasting impact of lessons taught."
"Response is appropriate — however — the way we respond will teach a lesson of its own," the Sutherland Institute statement said. "Taking the time to make sure we are acting wisely is critical to good public policy. Among the needed steps we should take are these: Carefully consider what the desired outcomes are for our students; and develop a response based on principle, context and long-term solutions."
While the Legislature can call itself into a special session during an emergency, Adams said it's likely the next opportunity lawmakers will get to tackle critical race theory, unless the governor changes his mind, will be the next general session in January.
Taking a pass on '2nd Amendment sanctuary' for now
As for the "Second Amendment sanctuary" issue, Cox said he wants "to be clear that I believe Utah is and always has been a constitutional sanctuary state."
"You and I each swore an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States, and I know you take that oath as seriously as I do. Since Marbury v. Madison in 1803, when the federal government acts in ways that violate the Constitution, aggrieved parties have petitioned the courts to overturn those acts," Cox wrote. "I meet regularly with Attorney General Reyes to discuss federal overreach and join lawsuits to hold the federal government accountable."
The governor said his administration's "commitment to protecting the Second Amendment must never be in doubt." However, "while the concept of a sanctuary state is an intriguing one, I believe, for all the reasons mentioned above, it is best left to a general session."
Adams, again, said he would have preferred to see the Second Amendment sanctuary issue included on the special session agenda.
"I hate to be political, but man ... the Biden administration is being more aggressive on Second Amendment rights, and because of that our constituents are really concerned," Adams said. "They'd like to have it dealt with sooner than later, and I think this is something we could have dealt with in a special session, but it looks like we'll probably have to do that in the general session."