Utah lawmakers vote to block federal protections for LGBTQ+ students under Title IX


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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers convened in a special session on Juneteenth to declare the state's intent not to follow a soon-to-be-enacted federal rule providing antidiscrimination protections to LGBTQ+ students under Title IX.

The resolution declares that a pair of state laws restricting restroom access for transgender individuals and barring transgender girls from women's high school sports supersedes the federal Title IX rule. It's the first test of a new state law that aims to push back on what state lawmakers call "overreach" by the federal government. Under SB57, also known as the Utah Constitutional Sovereignty Act, lawmakers can prohibit state officials from enforcing federal directives if the "Legislature determines the federal directive violates the principles of state sovereignty."

This flips the existing framework where states can sue to stop federal laws and allows the state to proactively reject policies it disagrees with. Utah would only enforce the federal rule if compelled to by a court ruling.

Lawmakers say Utah 'geared up' to defend law

Utah House Speaker Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, told reporters before the session he expects legal challenges to the resolution, but Utah is "geared up; we're ready to defend the actions that we're taking today."

The federal rule in question is slated to take effect Aug. 1, and lawmakers say it would conflict with state laws adopted in recent years. The rule prohibits discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation. Schools that bar transgender children from a particular sports team or prohibit them from using a restroom that matches their gender identity could be in violation of Title IX.

Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said, "School districts need direction" ahead of the coming school year, which is why lawmakers needed to take urgent action.

"We've got conflicting laws ... what are they supposed to do?" Adams asked.

From left, Senate President Stuart Adams and Utah House Speaker Mike Schultz speak at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday.
From left, Senate President Stuart Adams and Utah House Speaker Mike Schultz speak at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. (Photo: Megan Nielsen, Deseret News)

Both Adams and Schultz said they are confident that the Biden administration's interpretation of Title IX to include protections for transgender students will be overturned by the courts. A federal judge on Monday issued a ruling temporarily blocking the implementation of the rule in six states, according to The Hill, just days after a similar ruling in a separate case temporarily blocked the rule in Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi and Montana.

"As (the plaintiffs) correctly argue, the new rule contravenes the plain text of Title IX by redefining 'sex' to include gender identity, violates government employees' First Amendment rights, and is the result of arbitrary and capricious rulemaking," U.S. District Judge Danny C. Reeves wrote in his ruling.

Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, the sponsor of the transgender athlete ban and this year's bathroom bill, sponsored HCR301 — the resolution to push back on Title IX. She and other proponents called the resolution a chance to defend state sovereignty against overreach, and she accused the Biden administration of "politicizing" Title IX protections.

"We didn't start this," Birkeland said. "This started with the Biden administration."

"If this were a majority blue state legislature and had a red-leaning president, would they be able to use this tool to surround their borders?" asked Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton. "I believe they would. I think it's one of those things that the resolution is about — protecting your border."

Some Republicans were also concerned that a section of Title IX barring discrimination based on "pregnancy or related conditions" would force the state to accommodate teachers or other employees who travel out of state to receive abortions.

"It says that the school districts and the education facilities have to make accommodations for those that have abortions," Schultz said. "Meaning, if they want to take off parental leave or whatever, then that could happen — they could be forced — the school districts in this case, to pay for that. ... In no way, shape or form will state dollars or taxpayer dollars, public dollars (be) used to accommodate abortions in any shape or form."

Because of that concern, the resolution also directs the state to follow state abortion law over the rule.

Democrats uniformly voted against the resolution, while all Republicans but one — Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City — voted in favor. Rep. Sahara Hayes, D-Millcreek, the only openly gay member of the Legislature, grew emotional while speaking against the resolution. She recounted public comments on the federal rule from LGBTQ+ citizens who spoke of being threatened or physically assaulted as a result of discrimination.

"Aren't these kids just as worthy of health, safety and well-being?" she asked. "This ruling is an attempt to protect these kids from discrimination."

"My frustration is that it already feels like we want this war against this very small, marginalized community," said Sen. Jennifer Plumb, D-Salt Lake City, referencing the previous policies enacted that impact a relatively small population of transgender individuals. "This feels kind of like a salt in the wound to a lot of folks that I've spoken to."

LGBT group reacts

Equality Utah, the state's largest LGBTQ+ rights organization, said the Legislature was using a "constitutionally suspect law aimed at undermining federal protections for transgender students."

"Utah will undoubtedly now embark on costly and time-consuming litigation, all so that the state can continue to police bathroom usage by children," the statement continued. "It is high time that Utah starts focusing its resources on helping our children achieve success rather than using them as pawns to score political points."

Jonas Everts cheers as protestors gather outside the house chambers during a legislative special session at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday.
Jonas Everts cheers as protestors gather outside the house chambers during a legislative special session at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. (Photo: Megan Nielsen, Deseret News)

Adams admitted the resolution carries the potential risk of losing federal funding to Utah schools, but said, "If you believe in states' rights, you got to stand up for something."

"We're always concerned about this, but we're also concerned about kids," he said. "And in Utah, we've managed our affairs extremely well."

Schultz said he believes about 10% of Utah's education funding comes from the federal government.

"Kids come before money," he said.

More than 50 people filled the rotunda of the Capitol in Salt Lake City ahead of and during the special session in protest of the Legislature's action; their chants in favor of transgender rights echoed through the House chamber as lawmakers began their business.

Lawmakers have adopted a series of controversial measures in recent years that have drawn pushback from LGBTQ+ advocates. In addition to barring transgender women from girls' sports and limiting restroom access to transgender individuals in state buildings, lawmakers approved a ban on gender-related surgeries and hormones for minors last year.

"Utah lawmakers, your obsession with kids' genitals is concerning," one sign read.

Asked about the protests, Adams said: "We've led the nation. People shouldn't be protesting, they should be celebrating what we've done."

"I truly respect what they're doing — respect them totally," he added, "but I think that if they truly understand the issues that we've done and how we've handled it in Utah — we're more together than we are apart."

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox called lawmakers into a special session last week to deal with the Title IX rule along with several other bills, drawing criticism from NAACP Salt Lake President Jeanetta Williams for holding the session on Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the U.S. Utah created a state holiday to commemorate Juneteenth in 2022, though state employees observed the holiday on Monday.

Correction: A previous version incorrectly reported Rep. Sahara Hayes' first name as Sandra.

Contributing: Lindsay Aerts

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Bridger Beal-Cvetko covers Utah politics, Salt Lake County communities and breaking news for KSL.com. He is a graduate of Utah Valley University.

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