Bill that would ban trans athletes from female sports passes House; Governor speaks against it

Stock image | File photo by monkeybusinessimages/ iStock / Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — A controversial bill that would ban transgender athletes from participating in girls or women’s sports took a big step in being ratified Wednesday, passing in the Utah House of Representatives. On Thursday, Gov. Spencer Cox spoke out against the bill.

Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, Date and location not specified | Photo courtesy of the Utah House, St. George News

Preserving Sports for Female Students, designated HB 302, advanced Wednesday to the Senate following a 50-23 vote, with two absences. The bill would require interscholastic athletes to compete in sports based on their designated sex at birth from kindergarten through high school in the state of Utah. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, and its supporters say transitioned females have a distinct biological advantage that makes girls and women’s sports unfair for those designated female at birth. Opponents of the bill say it is a violation of transgender rights.

“Across America, there are stories of individuals identified as male at birth competing against our female athletes,” Birkeland said during the House Education Committee meeting on Feb. 11. “These individuals who identified as male at birth are breaking records that no female will be able to reach. They’re taking championships, titles and scholarships from our female athletes.”

The major argument from supporters of the bill is that allowing boys to participate in girls sports results in unfair competition for cisgender girls. Currently, the Utah High School Activities Association prohibits male-to-female transgender athletes from participating in girls teams and relegating them to the boys team unless they are are taking medically-prescribed hormone treatments and have been doing so for at least a year. Female-to-male athletes are permitted on the boys team regardless of hormone treatment. The one-year benchmark is the current guideline for the International Olympic Committee and NCAA.

HB 302 would disallow transgender girls from joining interscholastic girls teams regardless of hormone treatment. Opponents claim that the bill discriminates transgender girls from their cisgender counterparts.

“The bill fails to address the concerns of all women who are or would be affected,” Seth Southern, a parent of a transgender daughter, said in the committee meeting. “Transgender individuals do not decide one day to be female. They already are. It would be discriminatory to pause the opportunity for transgender females. It would cause them the same pain this bill attempts to remedy for cisgendered females.”

Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, addresses the Utah House on HB 302, Salt Lake City, Utah, Feb. 17, 2021 | Photo courtesy of the Utah House, St. George News

This bill comes in the wake of a similar bill in Idaho a year ago. The Fairness in Women’s Sports Act was blocked by a federal judge in August.

The constitutionality of Utah’s bill came into question during the committee meeting as well. With the precedence of the Idaho bill and other legal actions, Michael Curtis, of the Office of Legislative Research and General Council, deemed it would likely draw a constitutionality battle at either or both the state and federal levels, but admitted there is no specific case law directed at sports in the state.

“It’s certainly highly risky,” Curtis told the committee. “It’s possible if not probable a court would hold it unconstitutional, but I can’t give you a more definite prediction without more on-point case law for Utah.”

In addition to possible legal fees, Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Sandy, also noted the implications passing the bill would have on the state’s attractiveness to entities like the NCAA, the International Olympic Committee and the NBA. During the House discussion, he cited the NCAA’s boycott of North Carolina after its “Bathroom Bill” barred transgender individuals from using restrooms designated for their post-transition gender.

Stoddard said a similar situation could happen in Utah, costing the state tens of millions of dollars.

“The 2023 NBA All-Star Game? That will also be gone,” Stoddard said. “Our own sports commission has estimated that will bring in 45 to 50 million dollars in economic impact. Gone. … We love the Olympics. We are all in support of it. Any chance of hosting the 2030 or 2034 winter Olympics also would be gone with the passage of this bill.”

Gov. Spencer Cox gives his first State of the State address before the Utah Legislature, Salt Lake City, Utah, Jan. 21, 2021 | File pool photo, St. George News

“This bill is more than about sports,” he added. “There are many peripheral consequences aside from the moral and ethical reasons that we should vote against this bill.”

Regardless of those issues, it advanced through the committee with a favorable recommendation by an 8-6-1 count Feb. 11. It advanced through the House on Wednesday. All Southern Utah representatives voted yea in both the committee and the House floor.

However, the bill is drawing opposition in high places; notably, the governor’s office. Cox acknowledged the complexity of the situation and condemned the “name calling” from both sides of the issue before ultimately saying he would vote no on the bill without changes on a PBS Utah stream on Thursday.

“If you have not spent time with transgender youth, then I would encourage you to pause on this issue,” Cox said. “We have so many people that are in a very, very difficult spot right now. We have very few, if any, transgender girls that are participating in sports. We’ve gotten really good at the LGBQ side of things. We’re struggling on the T side of things, and we will work hard on this. I’m still working with the sponsor on this … to see if we can figure out a Utah to solve this issue.

“I’m not in a place yet where I’m comfortable with the bill where it stands.”

The bill advances to the Senate, where it was introduced Thursday.

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

Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2021 Utah Legislature here.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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