SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah’s Republican lawmakers were preparing for a push Friday to override Gov. Spencer Cox’s veto of laws banning transgender youth athletes from playing on girls’ teams, a move coming amid a nationwide culture war over transgender issues.
Cox this week became the second GOP governor to override the state legislature over a sports ban, and his veto letter caught national attention with a poignant argument that such legislation targets vulnerable children who already have high rates of suicide attempts . But 11 states have enacted similar bans, and they’re a key issue for the party’s vocal conservative base.
There are also fears in Utah that passage of the law could shut down the NBA All-Star Game scheduled for February 2023 in Salt Lake City. The Utah Jazz’s owner, tech entrepreneur Ryan Smith, tweeted: “The bill was hasty, flawed and will not last forever. I’m confident we can find a better way.”
The team is also partially owned by NBA all-star Dwyane Wade, who has a transgender daughter. NBA spokesman Mike Bass said the league is “working closely” with Jazz on the matter.
But leaders in the deeply conservative legislature say they must pass the Women’s Sports Protection Act. As cultural changes increase LGBTQ visibility, lawmakers argue that transgender athletes have a physical advantage and could eventually dominate the field and change the nature of women’s sport.
Utah has only one transgender girl who plays in K-12 sports who would be affected by the ban. There were no allegations that any of Utah’s four transgender youth athletes had a competitive advantage.
A majority of residents — and lawmakers — are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in one of the nation’s most historically conservative states. But an influx of new residents and tech companies, coupled with the growing influence of the tourism industry, often sets the stage for heated debates 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 people’s participation in school sports. A year ago, lawmakers threw out a proposed ban over concerns about lawsuits and rebuffs from Cox, who said he would veto the legislation if it landed on his desk.
The issue resurfaced when lawmakers reconvened earlier this year. Its main sponsor, Republican Rep. Kera Birkeland, worked with Cox and civil rights activists at Equality Utah before introducing legislation that would require transgender athletic students to go before a government-appointed commission that would judge whether their participation was equal would distort competitive conditions.
Although the proposal was formulated as a compromise, it did not resonate with LGBTQ advocates or social conservatives. LGBTQ advocates have not only criticized Republican politicians’ appointments to commissioners, but also the judging criteria, which included body measurements such as hip-to-knee ratio.
Republican lawmakers said only an outright ban could maintain fairness and safety in women’s sports. In the last few hours before legislation was due to adjourn earlier this month, they amended the commission proposal to include a ban on transgender athletes in girls’ leagues.
Though the measure didn’t initially pass with veto-proof majorities, its proponents said earlier this week that they have since swayed enough Republican lawmakers to ensure repeal during a primary season when many moderate lawmakers face challenges from the right.
Lawmakers believe court challenges could delay implementation of their proposal, similar to bans enacted in Idaho and West Virginia. Utah policy would revert to commission if courts block a ban and rule it violates civil liberties and equal protection.
The looming threat of a lawsuit worries school districts and the Utah High School Athletic Association, which has said it lacks the resources to defend the policy in court. On Friday, lawmakers are expected to debate amending the bill, directing the state to take on potential lawsuits. A bill released Thursday would allocate taxpayers’ money for legal fees and potential damages.