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Bills removing marital exception for sexual abuse, teaching of scientific theories heard by House Judiciary Committee

By Autumn Shelton, West Virginia Press Association

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The House Judiciary Committee advanced two Senate bills on Tuesday morning, both of which will now go before the full House for consideration. One of these bills would fix a loophole regarding sexual abuse in a marriage, and one would allow teachers to respond to student’s questions about scientific theories in their classrooms. 

The first bill advanced was Senate Bill 190, which eliminates the state’s marital exception for first and third degree sexual offenses. The bill also removes the definition of marriage and removes the marriage exception under the definition of sexual contact. This bill passed the Senate on Feb. 26 by a vote of 22 to 9. 

The bill’s sponsor, Senate Majority Whip Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, was present to answer delegates’ questions regarding the bill. 

“In our state code there are two crimes of sexual violence,” Weld explained. “The first is sexual assault, which is what we generally would know as a penetrative rape, and then there’s sexual abuse, which is the touching of someone’s sexual organs through forcible compulsion.”

Weld stated that the marital exception to sexual assault was “removed from state code in 1976” during a major overhaul of sexual crimes law. “The marital exception to sexual abuse was then allowed to persist in the state code as it appears today.” 

In response to a question from Del. Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, about concerns he has heard regarding this bill surrounding the “playful” touching between married persons, Weld responded that there are safeguards in place to prevent grand jury charges for these individuals. 

According to Weld, before a person may move forward with sexual abuse allegations they would need to go through a process of five “checks and balances.” 

The first, Weld said, would be the responding officer’s consideration of victim credibility and probable cause before filing an official complaint. Then a prosecutor would need to decide if there is enough evidence to pursue charges. Third, the magistrate would need to decide if probable cause existed during the preliminary hearing. Fourth, a grand jury would need to decide if there is enough evidence to indict an individual for a crime and, finally, a jury would need to find a person “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” of that offense.” 

“When you get into these cases of where maybe there’s not DNA evidence, or there’s not a video, or a second or third witness, it really comes down to victim credibility,” Weld said, adding that if a person comes forward stating their spouse sexually abused them a lot of circumstances would need to be considered to determine credibility. 

“Those determinations are made every day by law enforcement and by prosecutors around the state when they decide to try to move forward with criminal charges, or not to move forward, with criminal charges,” Weld said. 

Weld added that this bill is about a lack of consent that results from forcible compulsion, incapacity to consent, or any sexual abuse where the victim does not acquiesce to the conduct. 

Senate Bill 190 will now be heard before the full House. 

The second bill advanced was the committee substitute, with a House Judiciary strike and insert amendment, for Senate Bill 280. 

According to the committee substitute of the bill, “no public school board, school superintendent, or school principal shall prohibit a public school classroom teacher from discussion or answering questions from students about scientific theories of how the universe and/or life came to exist.” 

When the bill was originally introduced by Sen. Amy Grady, R-Mason, on Jan. 11, it stated that “Teachers in public schools, including public charter schools, that include any one or more of grades kindergarten through 12, may teach intelligent design as a theory of how the universe and/or humanity came to exist.” 

Del. Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, was the first to speak about the bill. 

“When this bill was debated on the Senate side, there was somebody providing testimony, a student, about intelligent design. Is that covered as a scientific theory about how life came to exist?” Hansen asked. 

The committee’s counsel responded that, “It could be.” 

“This is one of those scientific theories that is not really presently capable of testing in proof like most scientific theories that then become scientific law with the typical scientific method,” counsel stated, adding that the argument could be made that all origin of life theories cannot presently be tested by the scientific method. 

“I think this is a protection for teachers if they are asked about, ‘Is this a scientific theory?’ or ‘How did life originate?’ I think this bill, this committee substitute before you, would protect the teacher from answering those questions in any way they saw appropriate,” counsel said. 

Based on interpretation of the current law, a teacher may be at risk if they answer a student’s question on the origin of life “in a way that students may find objection to,” counsel noted. 

After the committee passed their amendment, changing the bill’s language to, “No public school board, school superintendent, or school principal may prohibit a public school classroom teacher from responding to student inquiries or answering questions from students about scientific theories of how the universe and/or life came to exist,” Del. Andy Shamblin, R-Kanawha, provided his thoughts. 

“Why shouldn’t we be able to discuss, in school, creationism?” Shamblin asked. “If the subject is brought up, to me, it’s ludicrous to say this is pushing religion in schools. I mean, these are discussions that happen all the time in classrooms. I don’t teach science, but I teach Civics, I teach AP U.S. Government, and this debate over creationism is definitely a public policy debate that has went on forever in America. This doesn’t require a teacher to teach creationism, all this bill does is say that if the subject is brought up, the teacher can discuss that subject.” 

Joey Garcia, D-Marion, stated that this bill is incomplete and could have “unintended consequences.”  

“It’s wide open, and I think some people have believed that this will open the door for creationism, but it’s just as likely you have somebody that’s a teacher who spouts off some other theory that has no basis in science whatsoever,” Garcia said, noting this could even involve discussions about aliens. 

Del. Mark Zatezalo, R-Hancock, stated that he is concerned about the “chilling of discussion of different ideas” in today’s society. 

“Censorship is being suggested out there . . . almost as a right to ‘How dare you say something against what we believe.’ It’s out there right now, and you see it many times in many places,” Zatezalo said. “Being a geologist and having a scientific background, anything that chills discussion of theories, and that type of thing, is a bad thing as far as I’m concerned.” 

“The human race thrives on differences of opinion and discussion,” Zatezalo continued. “And when that discussion stops, things get a lot worse in a sudden hurry.” 

The bill, as amended, is headed to the full House for additional consideration.