Utah Legislature votes to ban transgender athletes in girls sports despite veto

Demonstrators opposed to transgender girls participating in youth sports gathered with Republican lawmakers on the steps of the Utah State Capitol on Friday, March 25, 2022, in Salt Lake City, Utah | AP photo by Samuel Metz, St. George News

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah lawmakers voted Friday to override GOP Gov. Spencer Cox’s veto of legislation banning transgender youth athletes from playing on girls teams — a move that comes amid a nationwide culture war over transgender issues.

Ariel Peters holds an equality sign during a rally to support transgender youths outside of the Capitol in Salt Lake City, Thursday, March 24, 2022. | Kristin Murphy for the Deseret News via AP, St. George News

Before the veto, the ban received support from a majority of Utah lawmakers, but fell short of the two-thirds needed to override it. Its sponsors on Friday successfully flipped 10 Republicans in the House and five in the Senate who had previously voted against the proposal.

All of the Southern Utah area House and Senate members voted to overturn the veto of House Bill 11. The Senate voted 21-8 and the House voted 56-18 in favor of overturning the veto, meeting the constitutional requirement.

Rep. Lowry Snow, in what is likely to be one of his last votes after previously announcing he will not be running for reelection, changed his previous “no” vote on HB 11 to a “yes.”

Sen. Evan Vickers, Cedar City, who also serves as the Senate majority leader, also changed his previous “no” vote to a “yes” and spoke to it before casting his vote.

Vickers, not present in the chamber in the State Capitol but attending the session via Zoom, said the amendment expected later to protect school districts from being sued over the new law convinced him to change his vote.

Sen. Evan Vickers, Cedar City, who also serves as the Senate majority leader of the Utah Legislature, explains over Zoom before the Senate vote to override the veto of House Bill 11, why he changed his previous “no” vote to a “yes,” March 25, 2022 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

“I want to acknowledge this is a process for us to get into a special session to make amendments to the bill so with that I change my vote from a ‘no’ to a ‘yes,’” Vickers said.

Cox was the second GOP governor this week to overrule lawmakers on a sports-participation ban, and his veto letter drew national attention with a poignant argument that such laws target vulnerable kids who already have high rates of suicide attempts.

Following the override of his veto, Cox issued the following statement:

“I am grateful the Legislature recognized that there were serious flaws with HB11 and for the heightened debate and input that legislators were able to receive over the past few weeks. I called a Special Session today to fix at least one flaw in the bill, and we’re heartened that the Legislature agreed to indemnify school districts and the Utah High School Activities Association from the enormous financial burden that inevitable litigation will have on them. I remain hopeful that we will continue to work toward a more inclusive, fair and compassionate policy during the interim.”

Business leaders are sounding the alarm that it could have a multimillion-dollar economic impact for the state, including the possible loss of the NBA All-Star Game next year.

The NBA’s Utah Jazz called the ban “discriminatory legislation” and opposed it in a statement.

But the ban won support from a vocal conservative base that has particular sway in Utah’s state primary season. Even with primaries looming, however, some Republicans stood with Cox to reject the ban.

“I cannot support this bill. I cannot support the veto override and if it costs me my seat so be it. I will do the right thing, as I always do,” said Republican Sen. Daniel Thatcher.

With the override of Cox’s veto, Utah becomes the 12th state to enact some sort of ban on transgender kids in school sports. The state’s law takes effect July 1.

Not long ago efforts to regulate transgender kids’ participation in school sports failed to gain traction in statehouses, but in the past two years groups like the American Principles Project began a coordinated effort to promote the legislation throughout the country. Since last year, bans have been introduced in at least 25 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. This week, Arizona and Oklahoma passed bans and sent them to governors for final approval.

People attend a rally to support transgender youths outside of the Capitol in Salt Lake City, Thursday, March 24, 2022 | Kristin Murphy for The Deseret News via AP, St. George News

“You start these fights and inject them into politics,” said Terry Schilling, president of the American Principles Project. “You pass them in a few states and it starts to take on a life of its own and becomes organic. We helped start this fight and we’re helping carry it through, but a lot of this is coming from the local level.”

Leaders in the deeply conservative Utah say they need the law to protect women’s sports. As cultural shifts raise LGBTQ visibility, the lawmakers argue that, without their intervention, more transgender athletes with apparent physical advantages could eventually dominate the field and change the nature of women’s sports.

Utah has only one transgender girl playing in K-12 sports who would be affected by the ban. There have been no allegations of any of the four transgender youth athletes in Utah having a competitive advantage.

The owner of the Utah Jazz, tech entrepreneur Ryan Smith, tweeted opposition to the bill, saying it was “rushed, flawed and won’t hold up over time. I’m hopeful we can find a better way.”

The team is also partially owned by NBA all-star Dwyane Wade, who has a transgender daughter.

Salt Lake City is set to host the NBA All-Star game in February 2023. League spokesman Mike Bass has said the league is “working closely” with the Jazz on the matter.

State Rep. Kera Birkeland, a Republican high school basketball coach who led Utah’s efforts to ban transgender girls from youth sports, addresses a crowd of supporters on the steps of the Utah State Capitol on Friday, March 25, 2022, in Salt Lake City, Utah. Lawmakers convened to override Gov. Spencer Cox, who vetoed their proposed ban | AP photo by Samuel Metz, St. George News

The group Visit Salt Lake, which hosts conferences, shows and events, said the override could cost the state $50 million in lost revenue. The Utah-based DNA-testing genealogy giant Ancestry.com also urged the Legislature to find another way.

The American Principles Project is confident that states with bans won’t face boycotts as North Carolina did after limiting public restrooms transgender people could use. It focused on legislation in populous, economic juggernaut states like Texas and Florida that would be harder to boycott, Schilling said.

On Thursday and Friday, demonstrators both in favor of and against a ban rallied at Utah’s Capitol, spotlighting what they saw as its potential effects.

Utah has historically been among the nation’s most conservative states. But an influx of new residents and technology companies coupled with the growing influence of the tourism industry often sets the stage for heated debate over social issues in the state home to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Friday’s deliberations came after more than a year of debate and negotiation between social conservatives and LGBTQ advocates. Republican sponsor Rep. Kera Birkeland worked with Cox and civil rights activists at Equality Utah before introducing legislation that would require transgender student-athletes to go before a government-appointed commission.

The proposal, although framed as a compromise, failed to gain traction on either side. LGBTQ advocates took issue with Republican politicians appointing commission members and evaluation criteria that included body measurements such as hip-to-knee ratio.

Then, in the final hours before the Legislature was set to adjourn earlier this month, GOP lawmakers supplanted the legislation with an all-out ban.

Birkeland, who is also a basketball coach, acknowledged the proposal had provoked emotion and criticism, but said conversations with female student-athletes compelled her to continue her effort.

“When we say, ‘This isn’t a problem in our state,’ what we say to those girls is, ‘Sit down, be quiet and make nice,'” she said.

Lawmakers anticipate court challenges similar to blocked bans in Idaho and West Virginia. Utah’s policy would revert to the commission if courts halt the ban.

The looming threat of a lawsuit worries school districts and the Utah High School Athletic Association, which has said it lacks the funds to defend the policy in court. Later Friday, lawmakers are expected to change the bill so state money would cover legal fees.

The move prompted a quick response from Utah’s Democratic Party Chair Diane Lewis, who said in a press release:

Utah Democrats stand with transgender Utahns against these hateful attacks. Let’s be honest: the Republican supermajority wasted thousands of taxpayer dollars by calling themselves into an emergency special session so they could override the Governor’s veto for one reason: to protect themselves against political attacks from extremists in their own party.

It’s no coincidence that they held their veto override session the day before the first GOP county conventions will take place. The fact that they would put their own re-election bids ahead of thoughtful, measured policy on such a delicate issue just goes to show that the Republican supermajority values politics over people, plain and simple.

Click here to read an earlier story detailing House Bill 11.

Written by LINDSAY WHITEHURST and SAM METZ, Associated Press.

St. George News reporter CHRIS REED contributed to this report.

Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2022 Utah Legislature here.

For a complete list of contacts for Southern Utah representatives and senators, click here.


Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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