Lawmakers override Cox veto, ban transgender athletes in high school sports

Mar 25, 2022, 2:02 PM | Updated: 10:44 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — As expected, Utah lawmakers convened Friday to overturn a veto of HB 11 that bans transgender athletes from participating in high school girls sports.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox vetoed the bill that was passed in the final hours of the regular legislative session after approximately 15 minutes of debate with no public input on the fourth iteration of the bill.

When originally passed, it did not have the two-thirds majority needed for a veto override but after the legislative session additional votes were gathered or turned, some have said because of re-election concerns. As members of the Senate explained their vote, some who switched said the chance to address those financial concerns in a special session were enough to switch their vote.

The vote passed both the Senate and the House. It is believed that lawsuits will follow passage of the bill. The GOP-controlled House voted to overturn by a 56-16 mark. The senate needed 20 votes and managed a 21-8 final mark to achieve the override.

The Senate did not have a debate but lawmakers had the chance to explain their vote. During that Sen. Thatcher called it political theater and said not one state that has passed a similar bill has had it upheld. He said passage of the bill will bring all the harms of passing it but none of the hoped-for benefits.

He calculated the possible legal and financial costs to the state to be millions of dollars and said the harm to the transgender community is incalculable. He said it will not protect Utah’s high school athletes as hoped because none of the other states who have tried to pass “identical” bills have seen them advance past lawsuits.

Cox wrote a five-page letter explaining his veto where he outline financial considerations about the bill and also expressed his concerns of compassion. Cox said there are currently four high school athletes who are transgender, one playing girls soccer. He said in his letter he doesn’t understand how they feel but simply wants them to live.

“I think Utah is in a unique place to do something unique and different from what the media and others say we are doing,” said Kera Birkeland. “This bill is not something I ran for elections.”

She said she is running the bill because she was asked to, citing the 35,000 girls participating in Utah’s high school sports with double the number in junior high.

Bill sponsor Representative Birkeland pushed back against those accusing the bill of attacking certain individuals, saying, “It is in no way, shape or form targeting anybody.”

“Women have a fundamental right under Title IX to play on an even playing field. That was the whole purpose of title,” she said. “And when that right is being infringed upon and someone’s liberties are being denied, it is the state’s purpose and role to step in and defend those liberties.”

Rep. Candice Pierucci said she believes the bill threads the needle between compassion for transgender students and also for girls participating in sports across Utah.

Utah High School Activities Association rules require that athletes competing on teams “complete one year of hormone treatment related to the gender transition before competing on a girls team.” The UHSAA rulebook addresses protections of fairness for sports teams and transgender participation.

Cox called a special session planned to follow the one called by the Speaker of the House and Senate President, to address the financial concerns the bill creates. Some critics fear the bill’s passage will lead to lawsuits that will financially impact the UHSAA and the state, perhaps including the NBA removing its NBA All-Star Game scheduled for Salt Lake City, though the NBA has not made a statement in that regard. The NBA and MLB have removed events from cities that passed laws concerning transgender citizens.

Gov. Cox transgender sports… by LarryDCurtis

Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith spoke against the bill on Twitter.

In response to questions about potential pushback on the state from the NBA, House Speaker Brad Wilson said, “I hope that the NBA understands–and other groups understand–our intent here is to protect women’s sports and keep women’s sports safe and competitive. And if they have thoughts on how to do that, we’d be happy to chat with them about that.”

Representative Wilson said they are committed to continuing to work on this issue and to find solutions that benefit all athletes.

The media was mentioned several times by several speakers during the debate of the bill. One speaker explained efforts made by Utah lawmakers to prevent youth suicide.

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss said lawmakers were looking for a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. She urged lawmakers to slow down and take a look at what can be done going forward that isn’t so painful and hurtful to kids. She said a college swimmer has incorrectly shifted focus to high school sports and it is not the same.

“If this were about fairness, we wouldn’t have passed this version in the last hours of the session without any public comment,” she said. Other lawmakers echoed those sentiments.

Republican Rep. Rohner said she is upset about fundraising groups have been doing on the backs of the state’s children and said the groups are using “us as pawns.” She vowed to be a champion of transgender children in Utah.

Birkeland passionately defended the process of the bill over a two-year span and said to do nothing would be harmful. She also called the UHSAA policy flawed.

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Lawmakers override Cox veto, ban transgender athletes in high school sports