SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Republican lawmakers in Utah were gearing up for a push Friday to overturn Gov. Spencer Cox’s veto of legislation banning young transgender athletes from playing on girls’ teams, a move that comes amid of a national culture war over transgender issues.
Cox was the second GOP governor this week to overrule state lawmakers on a ban on sports participation, and his letter of veto captured national attention with a poignant argument that these laws target vulnerable children who have already high rates of suicide attempts. But 11 states have enacted similar bans, and they are a key topic for the party’s vocal conservative base.
In Utah, there are also fears that passage of the law could derail the NBA All-Star Game scheduled for February 2023 in Salt Lake City. Utah Jazz owner, tech entrepreneur Ryan Smith, tweeted: “Bill rushed, flawed and won’t hold up. Hope we can find a better way.
The team is also partly owned by NBA star Dwyane Wade, who has a transgender daughter. NBA spokesman Mike Bass said the league is “working closely” with the Jazz on the matter.
Leaders of the deeply conservative legislature, however, say they must pass the law to protect women’s sports. As cultural shifts increase LGBTQ visibility, lawmakers argue that transgender athletes may have a physical advantage and could eventually dominate the field and change the nature of women’s sport.
Utah has only one transgender girl playing K-12 sports who would be affected by the ban. There has been no allegation that any of Utah’s four young transgender athletes have a competitive advantage.
The majority of residents — and lawmakers — are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in what has always been one of the most conservative states in the country. But an influx of new residents and tech companies coupled with the growing influence of the tourism industry often sets the stage for heated debate on social issues.
Friday’s deliberations come after more than a year of debate and negotiation between social conservatives and LGBTQ advocates over how to regulate transgender participation in school sports. A year ago, lawmakers scuttled a proposed ban amid concerns about lawsuits and the refusal of Cox, who indicated he would veto the legislation if it landed on his desk.
The problem resurfaced when lawmakers met again earlier this year. His main sponsor, Republican Rep. Kera Birkeland, worked with Cox and civil rights activists at Equality Utah before introducing legislation that would require transgender student-athletes to appear before a government-appointed commission, which would assess whether their participation would distort the rules of the game.
The proposal, although presented as a compromise, failed to gain traction among LGBTQ advocates or social conservatives. LGBTQ advocates took issue not only with Republican politicians appointing commission members, but also with judging criteria, which included body measurements such as hip-to-knee ratio.
Republican lawmakers have said only an outright ban could preserve fairness and safety in women’s sports. In the final hours before the Legislature adjourned earlier this month, they amended the commission’s proposal to include a ban on transgender athletes in girls’ leagues.
Although the measure was not originally passed with veto-proof majorities, its supporters said earlier this week that they had since swayed enough Republican lawmakers to secure a waiver over the course of a primary season where many moderate lawmakers face challenges from the right.
Lawmakers anticipate that legal challenges could delay the implementation of their proposal, similar to the bans that have been imposed in Idaho and West Virginia. The Utah policy would revert to the commission if the courts blocked a ban and found it violated civil rights and equal protections.
The looming threat of a lawsuit worries school districts and the Utah High School Athletic Association, which said it lacked funds to defend the policy in court. On Friday, lawmakers are expected to discuss amending the bill and order the state to agree to possible lawsuits. A bill released Thursday would earmark taxpayers’ money for legal fees and potential damages.
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