The Utah State Legislature voted Friday to override Republican Gov. Spencer Cox’s veto of a bill barring male-born athletes from girls’ scholastic sports, becoming the 12th state to pass legislation to address rising concerns over transgender competitors in female athletics.
The Senate voted 21-8 and the House voted 56-18 to override the governor’s veto, clearing the required threshold of a two-thirds majority in both chambers in what was a widely anticipated outcome.
The bill sponsored by Republican state Rep. Kera Birkeland requires public schools and private schools that compete against public schools to designate sports as male, female or co-ed. Male-born students are banned from competing on girls’ teams.
The legislation, which takes effect July 1, differs from bills passed by other states in that it creates a School Activity Eligibility Commission to resolve questions of eligibility if the law is overturned in court.
Mr. Cox vetoed the bill Tuesday, saying in a letter to Utah legislative leaders that when he is in doubt, “I always try to err on the side of kindness, mercy and compassion.”
The governor also called a special session for Friday afternoon to indemnify school districts and the Utah High School Activities Association from potential lawsuits.
Mr. Cox was one of two Republican governors to veto such legislation in the last week. Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb vetoed a similar measure Monday.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah said immediately after a vote that a lawsuit is in the works.
“We are deeply disappointed and saddened at today’s votes by the Utah Legislature to discriminate against transgender youth to exclude them from participating fully on sports teams,” the ACLU statement said. “Litigation to stop H.B. 11 from taking effect is now both necessary and inevitable to ensure constitutional promises of equal protection for all Utahns.”
Two Utah House Republicans joined Democrats in voting against the bill after a 30-minute floor debate during which foes called the bill an overreaction that would stigmatize transgender youth, given that the state has only four transgender high-school athletes.
“We want to prevent something that has not occurred, has not created a problem, and so we’re looking for a solution where there is no problem,” said Democratic state Rep. Carol Spackman Moss.
Several lawmakers cited the case of University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas, the male-born athlete who won an NCAA Division I women’s swimming title last week.
Republican state Rep. Mike Schultz argued that it was time to take action, given that not long ago the number of known transgender scholastic athletes in the Utah was zero.
“We know this is impacting our schools, our communities and especially our girls. We’ve seen it play out in the national headlines, and now Mr. Speaker, is the time to create policy for Utah that will provide clarity moving forward,” Mr. Schultz said. “Do we want to wait until something like the [Penn] swimmer situation happens in Utah? I don’t think that’s good policy.”
Democratic state Rep. Brian King argued that “things are simply not black and white in terms of gender orientation, sexual orientation, gender identification.”
“It’s simply not accurate to say that girls are girls and boys are boys, and never the two shall meet,” he said. “There is in fact a lot that is unknown.”
Several Utah lawmakers who opposed the bill took issue with the process, arguing that the bill that passed on the last day of the legislative session had undergone significant revisions that did not receive public comment.
Ms. Birkeland disagreed, saying that in the last two years her bills on transgender youth eligibility have had five committee hearings and four House debates, as well as open meetings.
“When we don’t act, and we just go with the status quo, we do more harm to both transgender youth and our women athletes,” she said. “When we say this isn’t a problem in our state, what we send to those girls is, sit down, be quiet and make nice, and I don’t think we should do that any longer.”
The Utah High School Activities Association requires that transgender athletes “complete one year of hormone treatment related to the gender transition before competing on a girls’ team,” a standard that Ms. Birkeland said was “not a good policy.”
Terry Schilling, president of conservative American Principles Project, said the veto shows that the “movement to defend girls’ sports continues to gain momentum, despite the cowardly actions of politicians like Spencer Cox.”
“Cox claimed his decision was motivated by ‘kindness, mercy and compassion.’ But where was his compassion for girls placed at an unfair, and potentially dangerous, disadvantage?” Mr. Schilling asked. “As always in this debate, the public sympathy of our supposed leaders only goes in one direction.”