Utah governor says school board member who questioned a student’s gender ’embarrassed the state’

File photo of Utah Gov. Spencer Cox speaking during a COVID-19 news conference Aug. 31, 2021, in Salt Lake City, Utah | Photo by Rick Bowmer, The Associated Press, St. George News

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah’s Republican governor and lieutenant governor are urging the State Board of Education to take action against a conservative board member whose social media post questioning the gender of a high school basketball player incited a tirade of threats against the girl.

Natalie Cline, who has previously come under investigation for inflammatory comments about LGBTQ+ students, singled out the Salt Lake City athlete in a since-deleted Facebook post that falsely insinuated the girl was transgender. Cline later apologized for provoking a firestorm of vulgar comments after she learned that the girl was not in fact trans.

But the school board member defended her initial suspicions, saying that a national push to normalize transgender identities makes it “normal to pause and wonder if people are what they say they are.”

Many Republican politicians have successfully spread fear about transgender individuals to garner support for athletic bans and bathroom restrictions that threaten to push trans people out of community spaces. The sponsors say such policies are needed to protect women and girls.

But as laws banning trans girls from girls’ sports have spread across Republican-led states, false accusations such as this have threatened the safety of both trans and non-trans youths.

Gov. Spencer Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson released this joint statement following state school board member Natalie Cline’s controversial comment about the gender of a high school athlete, Feb. 7, 2024 | Image courtesy of Office of the Governor, St. George News

In a joint rebuke with Republican Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, Gov. Spencer Cox said Cline has “embarrassed the state” by dogpiling on a child she thought to be trans.

The public reprimand from the state’s executive leaders comes a few weeks after Cox signed legislation making Utah the latest state to limit bathroom access for transgender people.

“We were stunned to learn of the unconscionable behavior of board member Cline and others toward a high school student today,” Cox and Henderson said in their joint statement late Wednesday. “The last thing our children need is an elected official harassing them on social media.”

Cox has toed the line on transgender restrictions during his three years as governor, vetoing a transgender athlete ban but approving legislation like the new bathroom law that critics say has given people such as Cline license to scrutinize others in public and direct vitriol at anyone whose gender expression gives them pause.

A 2022 state law banning trans girls from playing on girls’ sports teams, which was enacted over Cox’s opposition, has been temporarily blocked by a judge while a legal challenge moves through court.

Troy Williams, executive director of the LGBTQ+ advocacy group Equality Utah, said Cline’s post gave way to a modern day witch hunt in which adults tried to police the body of a child to determine if she was feminine enough.

“Now that new bathroom legislation has passed the Utah Legislature and been signed by Governor Cox, we are deeply concerned these gender witch hunts will escalate and harm not only transgender Utahns, but any Utahn who does not conform to Natalie Cline’s narrow view of gender,” he said.

Cox’s brand of socially conscious conservatism has led to past sparring matches with Republican legislative leaders and has sometimes placed him at odds with the national party as it has shifted further right and zeroed in on transgender people. He is up for reelection this year and faces some prominent Republican challengers.

Democratic state lawmakers have called for Cline’s resignation and say they’re working with attorneys to initiate impeachment proceedings against her. Republican legislative leaders have not signaled whether they would support impeachment, but Senate President Stuart Adams said Thursday he was “looking at all options” to address Cline’s “reprehensible” behavior. The governor and lieutenant governor, meanwhile, have asked the school board to “hold her accountable.”

State Board of Education trustee Natalie Cline’s social media post calling into question the gender of a high school athlete prompted a rebuke from Utah’s governor and lieutenant governor, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Utah State Board of Education, St. George News

The State Board of Education condemned Cline’s actions in a statement Thursday but said it has no power or authority to unseat her. The elected 15-member body is looking into whether disciplinary action is warranted.

“Board Leadership is very concerned about this post and the harm it has caused to students and families in Utah,” the panel said. “We are deeply saddened by the events that have taken place and will be taking prompt action.”

According to Cline’s profile on the the state board of education website: “Natalie Cline has been deeply involved in the fight for religious freedom, pro-life legislation, and family-friendly education policy for the past decade. She has lobbied and testified locally in favor of parental rights, student data privacy, and the protection of our children’s innocence.”

Cline has given no indication that she plans to resign. Her term ends in November, and she has filed to run for reelection. Henderson said she made a donation this week to the campaign of Cline’s Republican opponent, Jordan School District administrator Amanda Bollinger, and encouraged her social media followers to do the same.

Written by HANNAH SCHOENBAUM, The Associated Press

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

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