By SAM METZ and LINDSAY WHITEHURST – Associated Press
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah lawmakers on Friday voted to override GOP Gov. Spencer Cox’s veto of laws banning transgender youth athletes from playing on girls’ teams — a move made amid a statewide culture war over transgender issues.
Before the veto, the ban was supported by a majority of Utah lawmakers, but fell short of the two-thirds needed to overrule it. Its sponsors on Friday successfully flipped 10 Republicans in the House of Representatives and five in the Senate who previously voted against the proposal.
Cox this week became the second GOP governor to overrule lawmakers 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. Business leaders are sounding the alarm that this could have multimillion-dollar economic ramifications for the state, including the possible loss of next year’s NBA All-Star Game.
But the ban won support from a vocal conservative base, particularly influential in Utah’s elementary school days. Despite the upcoming primary, however, some Republicans sided with Cox to oppose the ban.
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“I cannot support this bill. I cannot support the veto, and if it costs me my seat, so be it. I will do what is right, as I always do,” said Republican Senator Daniel Thatcher.
Overcoming Cox’s veto will make Utah the 12th state to enact some sort of ban on transgender children participating in school sports. The state law goes into effect on July 1.
Not long ago, efforts to regulate the participation of transgender children in school sports failed to gain a foothold in state buildings, but in the past two years groups like the American Principles Project have begun a coordinated effort to promote legislation across the country . Bans have been introduced in at least 25 states since last year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. This week, Arizona and Oklahoma passed bans and sent them to governors for final approval.
“They start these struggles and bring them into politics,” said Terry Schilling, president of the American Principles Project. “You pass it in a couple of states and it starts to take on a life of its own and becomes organic. We helped start this fight and we’re helping to see it through, but a lot of that comes from the local level.”
Leaders in deeply conservative Utah say they need the law to protect women’s sports. As cultural shifts increase LGBTQ visibility, lawmakers argue that without their intervention, more transgender athletes with obvious physical advantages 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.
The Utah Jazz’s owner, tech entrepreneur Ryan Smith, tweeted against the law, saying it 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.
Salt Lake City is scheduled to host the February 2023 NBA All-Star Game. League spokesman Mike Bass said the league was “working closely” with Jazz on the matter.
The group Visit Salt Lake, which hosts conferences, shows and events, said lifting it could cost the state $50 million in lost revenue. Utah-based DNA testing genealogy giant Ancestry.com also urged the Legislature to find another way.
The American Principles Project is confident that states with bans will not face boycotts like North Carolina did after restricting the public restrooms that transgender people could use. It focused on laws in populous economic juggernaut states like Texas and Florida that are harder to boycott, Schilling said.
On Thursday and Friday, protesters demonstrated both for and against a ban at the Utah Capitol, drawing attention to the potential impact they believed could have.
Utah has historically been one of the most conservative states in the nation. 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 about social issues in the state that is home to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Friday’s deliberations came after more than a year of debate and negotiation between social conservatives and LGBTQ advocates. Republican sponsor 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.
Though formulated as a compromise, the proposal failed to gain traction on either side. LGBTQ advocates have criticized Republican politicians’ appointments of commissioners and judging criteria, which included body measurements such as hip-to-knee ratio.
Then, in the final hours before the legislature was due to adjourn earlier this month, GOP lawmakers replaced the legislation with a blanket ban.
Birkeland, who is also a basketball coach, acknowledged the proposal provoked emotion and criticism, but said discussions with female students forced her to continue her efforts.
“When we say, ‘That’s not a problem in our state,’ we’re saying to these girls, ‘Sit down, shut up and make it nice,'” she said.
Lawmakers expect court challenges similar to blocked bans in Idaho and West Virginia. Utah’s policy would revert to the commission if courts stop the ban.
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. Lawmakers are expected to amend the bill later on Friday to allow state funds to cover attorneys’ fees.
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