As the Legislature begins its wrangling over how evolution should be taught in Utah's public schools, the people who will affect the debate include not only lobbyists and legislators but, more subtly, Adam and Eve, Sunday school teachers, rabbis and the pope.

Religion has been trying to get a handle on Charles Darwin since his "The Origin of Species" and "Descent of Man" were published in the 1800s. Darwin's theory that human life evolved from lower life forms — a process that includes random mutation and natural selection — shocked people who believe that Adam was the first human. Evolutionary theory also implies that life could have occurred without divine direction, although Darwin himself inserted the phrase "by the Creator" in a later edition of "Origin."

The controversy over Darwin's work has come to a head in Utah this week as the Legislature debates a bill by Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan. SB96, expected to come up before the entire Senate today or Friday, requires that public school science classes teach that not all scientists agree about the origins of life.

Although the bill makes no mention of intelligent design — the theory that the complexity of biological life shows that some "designer" must have had a hand in its creation — the Utah Office of Education and other critics argue that the bill leaves the door open for religious theory to be taught in science classes. And that, they argue, may violate a constitutional separation of church and state.

As legislators debate the bill, it's hard to imagine that their own religious beliefs won't creep into their deliberations and that they won't be lobbied by people swayed by their own beliefs about the origins of life.

That's the backdrop for a slim little book, hot off the presses, written by Utah Valley State College physics professor William E. Evenson and Brigham Young University biology professor Duane E. Jeffery. Titled "Mormonism and Evolution: the Authoritative LDS Statements," the book is a compilation of statements made by or sanctioned by the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, from 1909 to 2004.

"There has been a belief, for years and years and years, that Mormonism and evolution are diametrically opposed," Jeffery said in a recent phone call. He hopes the book will illuminate the grayer areas of the church's position. Jeffery calls himself a "theistic evolutionist."

Included in the book are four official First Presidency statements released in 1992 by Brigham Young University in a special "evolution packet" for students. In 1999 the packet was distributed to all teachers in the Church Education System.

According to Evenson, "the LDS Church has really been careful over the years not to get into a box where they are taking a position that later gets undermined by science and other developments of human knowledge. I don't think that's well understood by people who would like to have this be a settled issue."

A reading of the official statements, which also include 12 that are not a part of the "BYU packet," shows a subtle evolution of response. In 1909, Joseph F. Smith, John R. Winder and Anthon H. Lund of the First Presidency wrote that Adam is the "primal parent of our race" and that the church "proclaims man to be the direct and lineal offspring of Deity."

In a 1992 section on evolution in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, the church-sanctioned entry reads that: "The scriptures tell why man was created, but they do not tell how, though the Lord has promised that he will tell that when he comes again." It ended with a reiteration that "Adam is the primal parent of our race."

Ten years later, President Gordon B. Hinckley was quoted as saying, "What the church requires is only belief 'that Adam was the first man of what we would call the human race.' Scientists can speculate on the rest."

Some religions are more eager to speak out against Darwin. Fundamentalist Christians take the Bible literally that God created the Earth in six days, and have made clear their position on the teaching of evolution.

Muslims believe that Adam was the first human but have not publicly joined in the debate over evolution. It's also not a matter of debate within the Muslim community, says Imam Shuaib-Ud Din of Khadeeja Mosque in West Valley City. "It's probably a debate within the very intellectually elite, but for most of the people, it's a 'no-brainer.' God created Adam, and that's the end."

"Scientific theories change over time," he adds. "If science someday proves Darwin's theory to be a fact, without a speck of doubt, then we would somehow find a way to make it compatible with the word of God."

Orthodox Judaism, too, has a literal approach to creation, taken from the Old Testament and the Talmud, known collectively as Torah.

"Torah does not believe in evolution," said Rabbi Benny Zippel of Chabad Lubavitch of Utah. "Torah believes that during the six days of creation, God created man in God's image."

The Reform Jewish tradition, on the other hand, takes the Bible less literally, says Rabbi Tracee Rosen of Congregation Kol Ami. "We don't have any problem whatsoever with issues of science and faith conflicting with each other," she says.

Darwin's theory of evolution, she adds, doesn't take into account a creator "but doesn't discount a creator," either. That ambiguity sits fine with her, she says, even though she herself believes that a creative force directs the laws of nature. What bothers her is the thought of a mandate that intelligent design or creation theory should be taught in public school science classrooms.

"I don't want a mandate that it has to be taught in science classes, any more than I want a mandate that I have to dissect frogs in religion classes," Rabbi Rosen said.

The need to separate science and religion lies behind the Rev. Daniel Webster's opposition to Buttars' bill. The Rev. Webster, spokesman for the Episcopal Diocese of Utah, notes that Buttars' religious beliefs "inform him, just as my religious beliefs inform me. But not to the point where I want to impose them on other people."

The Episcopal Church has not taken an official stand on evolution, he says, and "many Episcopalians will have very divergent opinions" about Darwin's ideas.

The Rev. Webster is one of 40 Utah clergy who have signed a national letter addressed to school boards across the country urging them to "preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge. We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth."

So far, 238 congregations in 43 states and three countries have also signed on to celebrate "Evolution Sunday" on Feb. 12, the 197th anniversary of Darwin's birth. The idea is to make a statement that religion and science "are not adversaries."

The Catholic Church also does not interpret Genesis literally. The Catholic Church believes, as Pope John II said in a 1986 address, that it's possible that the human body "could have been gradually prepared in the forms of antecedent living beings."

But the process still required God and was not simply a matter of chance, notes Susan Northway, director of the Office of Religious Education for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City. The Catholic Church believes that "the Creation of this world was always with humans in mind," Northway said. "We believe that humans are to be stewards of this Earth."

She adds that Catholics believe that only the body evolved, not the soul. "Every person's soul is individually created by God."

On Tuesday, The Vatican newspaper published an article saying that intelligent design is not science and that teaching it alongside evolutionary theory in school classrooms only creates confusion.

The Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City was one of 22 local groups and scientists last summer that helped draft a position paper that supported the teaching of evolution and urged public school teachers to "encourage students to discuss any seeming conflicts (about evolution) with their parents or religious leaders."

Even though the Buttars bill mentions neither intelligent design nor the Bible, some observers think it was motivated by religious concerns. "If you look at State Board of Education minutes from last summer, Buttars made comments like 'my religion doesn't believe that we descended from apes,' " said Carol Lear, director of school law and legislation for the Utah Office of Education. "I don't know how he can disavow his religious motives."

Lear points to a 1985 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Wallace v. Jaffee, in which the court struck down an Alabama law requiring a "minute of meditation or voluntary prayer" at the start of each school day. The court ruled that the law violated the First Amendment because the sponsors of the law had religious motives.

As for Buttars, he told the Senate Education Standing Committee Tuesday, "There is no faith-based in here. They're all inferring that. . . . All the bill says is, don't overstate what you don't know" about the origins of life.

The problem most theistic evolutionists have with intelligent design, or ID, says BYU biology professor Jeffery, is that ID wants to find "evidences" of divine existence in nature, whereas theistic evolutionists "don't feel any necessity to find complicated things that look nice to try to prove divine existence." Once the proponents of ID have identified that something is the "product of design," they don't do further research on the subject, Jeffery objects. "It simply is not science," he said.


E-mail: jarvik@desnews.com