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Demonstrators gather in front of Queen's Park to protest against Ontario's new sex education curriculum in Toronto on Tuesday, February 24, 2015.

Darren Calabrese/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A Progressive Conservative MPP says he doesn't believe in evolution and suggested schools should have the right to opt out of teaching it.

The surprising comments came amid a fractious debate over Ontario's new sex-education curriculum, which has already seen a different Tory MPP accused of homophobia by the governing Liberals.

"For myself, I don't believe in evolution," Rick Nicholls, MPP for Chatham-Kent-Essex, told reporters Wednesday. "That doesn't mean that I speak for everyone else in my caucus. That's a personal belief. That's a personal stance."

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Sex-ed has exposed a rift among the PCs. Some, including leadership contenders MPP Monte McNaughton and Patrick Brown, the federal MP whose campaign Mr. Nicholls is co-chairing, have come out swinging against the curriculum. Others have tried to steer the party away from the subject, fearing any use of social-conservative wedge issues will backfire.

The Tory flareups have also taken the heat off Premier Kathleen Wynne's government, which is facing a police investigation into an alleged bribery scandal, by shifting the spotlight onto the opposition.

It all started in Question Period Tuesday, when Mr. McNaughton called for schools to be allowed to opt out of teaching sex-ed. Education Minister Liz Sandals fired back that the Tories would allow them to opt out of teaching evolution, as well. Mr. Nicholls responded this was "not a bad idea."

On Wednesday, he stood by his remarks: "[Ms. Sandals] was very flippant in her response to my colleague and I gave a flippant response back to her."

PC interim leader Jim Wilson swiftly tried to distance the party from the controversial positions of Mr. McNaughton and Mr. Nicholls.

"They have their opinions. They are opinions that are not shared by the majority of the PC caucus," he said. "We're not falling – we're trying not to fall – into the trap that the government's clearly setting, and that is to change the channel on the scandals."

Within the hour, Mr. Nicholls issued a statement saying he had been given a talking-to by Tory House Leader Steve Clark. Of his remarks on evolution, he wrote: "I acknowledge that my comment is not reflective of Ontario PC Party policy."

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In an e-mail, Mr. Brown's campaign said the candidate believes in evolution. Mr. McNaughton said: "I accept the thesis of evolutionary theory."

MPP Christine Elliott, who is positioning herself as a moderate in the leadership race, said she does not agree with Mr. Nicholls's anti-evolution views.

But she walked a tightrope on sex-ed, refusing to say what she thought of the curriculum: "It doesn't matter what my opinion is. I think what we need to do is go through that consultation process and hear what parents have to say."

Mr. McNaughton came under fire Tuesday over his comments that "it's not the Premier of Ontario's job, especially Kathleen Wynne," to decide what children should learn in sex-ed. Ms. Sandals said this assertion about Ms. Wynne, the first openly gay head of government in the English-speaking world, was "quite homophobic."

Later that day, both Mr. Brown and Mr. McNaughton spoke at an anti-sex-ed protest in front of Queen's Park. The rally included signs with somewhat bizarre messages, including "Math not masturbation," "Science, not sex" and "What's next … safe animal sex?" One protesting parent gave a speech equating the new curriculum with teachers giving children illegal drugs.

Privately, some PCs rolled their eyes over the controversies involving the MPPs.

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Such positions, they said, are doing nothing to help a party that has lost four consecutive elections in part by repeatedly taking controversial positions on hot-button issues in an effort to motivate die-hard supporters.

"We've clearly evolved a third foot," lamented one Tory insider, "so we could shoot ourselves in it."

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