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Utah Legislature overrides governor's veto of transgender sports ban


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SALT LAKE CITY — As expected, the Republican-controlled Utah Legislature voted Friday to override Gov. Spencer Cox's veto of a bill banning transgender girls from participating in female school sports.

After passionate debate and protests from Democrats, the House voted 56-18, the supermajority needed, to override Cox's veto. Soon after, the Senate voted 21-8 to give final approval to the override, one vote over the margin needed for the supermajority required to overpower the governor's veto.

At least four Republican lawmakers from both bodies needed to switch their initial votes in opposition to HB11 to support the override. When the vote came, enough did.

The sponsor of HB11, Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, urged her fellow lawmakers to support the override, saying the bill is "purely" about "preserving women's sports."

"When we don't act and we just go with the status quo, we just do more harm to both transgender youth and women athletes," Birkeland said.

Also on Friday, the Utah Legislature convened a separate special session called by the governor to make changes to HB11, specifically to address concerns that the bill would leave the Utah High School Activities Association and school districts financially vulnerable to costly lawsuits.

During the special session, the House voted 58-15 and the Senate 22-5 to approve HB3001, a bill that indemnifies school districts and the activities association from lawsuits associated with HB11. The bill included a one-time appropriation of $500,000 from the Utah attorney general's budget for litigation costs.

After HB11's veto was successfully overridden, the ACLU of Utah signaled that litigation is already looming.

"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," said a statement issued by the organization. "Litigation to stop HB11 from taking effect is now both necessary and inevitable to ensure Constitutional promises of equal protection for all Utahns."

Asked about impending litigation during a media availability, Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said lawmakers expect litigation — and that's partially why they added indemnification in the special session.

"The biggest mistake would have been to just wait until someone litigates on this issue and then us saying, 'Gosh I wish we would have gotten in front of it and handled it the way we wanted to,'" Birkeland said.

Adams has said he expects the all-out ban to be overturned by the courts, but he noted HB11 is structured to activate a commission to decide if transgender kids can compete if the ban is struck down.

With lawmakers' override of HB11's veto, the bill is now slated to take effect on July 1. The bill to indemnify enforcement of the ban now goes to the governor for consideration. In his veto letter, Cox had urged lawmakers to address indemnification, expressing concerns that HB11 would "bankrupt" the high school activities association.

Cox, in a statement after the votes Friday, said he was "grateful the Legislature recognized that there were serious flaws with HB11." He said he was "heartened" lawmakers agreed to indemnify school districts and the association "from the enormous financial burden that inevitable litigation will have on them.

"I remain hopeful that we will continue to work toward a more inclusive, fair and compassionate policy during the interim," Cox said.

'Political theater?'

Utah's legislative leaders called Friday's veto override session confident that there would be enough lawmakers willing to switch their vote to override Cox's veto, even though the bill initially passed the House and Senate with margins beneath the two-thirds majority vote required to override a veto.

The bill's opponents have accused Utah's Republican lawmakers of joining a highly political, national conservative "culture war," as transgender sports has become a national "wedge issue" to motivate conservative supporters.

Friday's override session comes just one day before county conventions for some of Utah's legislative Republicans facing reelection, leading some of the bill's opponents to call it "political theater."

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, pushed back on that claim, saying not all lawmakers are up for reelection this year. Wilson said the debate would have played out "regardless" of elections.

In the Senate, only two of the six Republican senators who voted against HB11 on the last night of the 2022 session maintained their stance — Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, and Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross.

Weiler cast his "no" vote without explanation. But Thatcher, who made an emotional case against the bill on the night of its passage, saying it harms already vulnerable transgender kids, again gave a heartfelt speech before casting his vote on Friday. He called HB11 "political theater" and said he would face the political consequences for his vote against the override.

"In my world, conservative doesn't mean turning your back on your principles ... when you know in your heart what the right thing is to do," Thatcher said, arguing HB11 "hurts" the transgender community, violates the Constitution and wastes taxpayer money.

"If it costs me my seat, then so be it," Thatcher said. "If I lose my race, I lose my race standing for what I believe in."

In the House, two Republican representatives also maintained their stance — Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City, and Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy.

Winder tweeted Thursday night he would not vote to override Cox's veto.

"As a fiscal conservative I cannot vote for a bill to throw away tax dollars in a losing lawsuit or to cost the state in economic opportunities all while only serving as a message of hate while being mired in court," Winder tweeted, adding he agrees with Cox and the sentiments the governor stated in his veto letter. "Utah can do better!"

Responding to a tweet questioning his motives, Winder said he's "not running for a fourth term," calling himself a "lame duck and can speak freely without worrying about reelection."

"I say what I said because I believe it," Winder tweeted. "The Gov is right. Utah can do better on this issue!"

Reaction

"Is this who we are as a state?" Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall asked in a tweet after the votes. "I'm at a loss. This is decidedly not 'The Utah Way' and I'm ashamed at the way some of our state's leaders are playing politics with children's lives."

She went on to address transgender kids directly, saying, "I'm sorry this is happening to you and some of our leaders seem intent on going out of their way to persecute and punish you just for being who you are. They do not speak for all of us. You are perfect as you are. You are loved. I stand with you."

"The Utah Jazz oppose discriminatory legislation," said a statement put out by the team Friday afternoon. "We are committed to our values of inclusivity, mutual respect, and fair play. Beyond basketball, we hope for an equitable solution that shows love and compassion for all our youth."

The team's statement comes amid speculation that the NBA could pull its annual All-Star Game from Salt Lake City, where it is scheduled to be held next year. The league previously moved the 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte after North Carolina passed a bill to only allow people to use bathrooms that corresponded with the gender they were assigned at birth.

"That seems hypothetical to me," Adams said, when asked about the All-Star Game moving. "I'd like to first hear from the NBA."

As a Jazz season ticket holder, Wilson said he's looking forward to the game and is open to a dialogue with the league about any concerns it has with the policy.

"We'd also like to know what their thoughts are and how the NBA believes we can protect women's sports and what ideas they would have that we could implement to help manage this difficult situation," he said. "I think we all, at least everyone in this room, is committed to continuing to work on this issue. ... I hope that the NBA understands ... that our intent here is to protect women's sports and keep women's sports safe and competitive."

Emotionally charged Capitol rally

Before the override session began, around 100 people rallied on the steps of the Capitol both for and against HB11. Some handed out transgender and LGTBQ flags, others held signs that read "Support HB11" or "Women's rights."

Some lawmakers including Birkeland attended the rally, telling their supporters they were there to defend the integrity and safety of women's sports. As they spoke to the crowd, a group of about a dozen defending LGBT rights at times shouted over them.

Emma Grant, a 17-year-old volleyball player from Skyridge High School in Lehi, spoke in support of HB11, saying she works "really hard" in her sport.

"I'm trying to get a scholarship, and if we're going to do this it's going to, like, make my odds go way down," she said. "Plus you have to think about safety too."

A counter protester advocating for LGBTQ rights, who declined to provide his name, said the Utah Legislature's actions "are directly inhibiting trans women's rights and lives. Their reality and their truth ... is that they are women. It doesn't matter what everybody else thinks. They are women."

As he spoke, a HB11 supporter shouted, "They're not real women." At that point, tensions escalated between the two groups, and the LGBTQ rights advocate raised his fist, prompting Utah Highway Patrol troopers to intervene. The verbal altercation didn't escalate to physical violence, and no one was injured.

Teresa Cutler said she came to support HB11 "because girls need to be able to feel safe in their sports. And when you allow transgenders to enter the sports rooms, it's not only the playing field that is of concern, it's before and after."

Alwaze Liedtke, who prefers they/them pronouns, didn't plan on attending the rally, but saw it while taking an Uber and decided to join.

"I'm nonbinary ... and saw that people where trying to take away my rights. So here I am," they said.

Liedtke said they often hear the argument that transgender women shouldn't play sports because they might have a competitive advantage, to which they said, "Winning isn't everything."

Hannah Demke, a high school student from Sandy, pointed to Cox's veto letter, in which he wrote that only one transgender student currently participates in girls sports, yet 86% of trans youth have reported suicidal thoughts and 56% of trans youth have attempted suicide.

"I can't imagine the pressure on her of having the entire Legislature against you at such a young age, just because you want to feel comfortable," Demke said.

A man named Mike, who declined to give his last name and said he was a former bishop for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from Bountiful, said he showed up to support trans rights because of the high suicide rate among transgender youth and LGBTQ youth in general.

"The reason they're committing suicide is because they're being persecuted by people who don't want them to be able to participate in society with everyone else who is scared of them for no good reason. Rather than being scared, they should just remember that perfect love casts out all fears," he said. "Trans girls are just girls. They're just young girls who are trying to participate in sports and build up their own confidence and they deserve that."

Salt Lake leaders to trans youth: 'You belong'

Ahead of the Utah Legislature's vote to override Cox's veto, the Democratic stronghold of Salt Lake City sent a message of love to Utah's transgender community.

Mendenhall and members of the Salt Lake City Council issued a joint statement Thursday stating Utah's capital "loves and supports our transgender and non-binary friends."

"You have a place in our communities and the state of Utah," the mayor and council's statement said.

City leaders went on to condemn the Legislature's actions.

"We consider this action to be particularly tragic, given that the responsibility of all lawmakers is to provide equal protection and dignity under the law to all people," Salt Lake City leaders' statement said.

Transgender youth run a "much higher risk of mental health problems including suicide," Mendenhall and the council said, "and this bill will tragically and unnecessarily add to those statistics."

"Participating in sports is not just about who is winning, it is about being part of a group, having fun, and staying healthy," Mendenhall and the council said. "Denying transgender youth the right to participate in sports is further ostracizing and harming them.

However, Mendenhall and the council's seven members — Council Chairman Dan Dugan and Council members Darin Mano, Victoria Petro-Eschler, Alejandro Puy, Chris Wharton, Ana Valdemoros and Amy Fowler — said they "want you to know that you are welcome here, you have a place, and you belong."

The Salt Lake City Council made history this year with a current elected makeup that includes a majority of members of color and who identify as LGBTQ.

Other local leaders including Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill also urged Utah lawmakers not to override Cox's veto of HB11 on Friday, saying it could increase isolation for transgender youth and increase risk factors that could lead to criminal behavior and victimization later in their lives.

Gill, in an open letter, noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognizes that adverse childhood experiences "have a massive impact on future criminal offenses and victimization."

Isolation from communities is a risk factor, Gill wrote, while "research shows that sports participation is a predictor of positive educational and occupational outcomes and lower levels of social isolation."

"In short, providing more opportunities for extracurricular activities decreases criminal behavior and victimization," Gill said. "However, isolating children from these activities increases their risk now and later in life."

Even though, if HB11 becomes law, it will exclude only one transgender girl currently playing high school sports in Utah, "the isolating effect of the bill is much broader," Gill said.

"Transgender children across Utah are looking to the legislature to answer a more fundamental question: Do I belong here?" Gill said. "The inevitable lawsuits and likely reversal of HB11 in the courts won't undo the harm that the legislature will cause today if it overrides Governor Cox's veto.

"Not to mention wasted tax dollars," Gill continued, "loss of economic opportunity, and an invasion on the personal choices of the family all resulting in bad public policy. Please do not join in sending that harmful message to our children."

Gill said the issue needs further discussion, and passing HB11 "will not further that conversation, but it will isolate children across Utah and impose long-term harms on Utah's public safety."

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Katie McKellar

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