SALT LAKE CITY — GOP lawmakers in Utah pushed through a ban on transgender youth athletes playing on girls teams Friday, overriding a veto and joining 11 other states with similar laws amid a nationwide culture war.
A veto letter from Gov. Spencer Cox drew national attention with a poignant argument that such laws target vulnerable transgender kids already at high suicide risk. Utah business leaders also sounded the alarm that the ban could have a multimillion-dollar economic impact for the state, including the possible loss of the NBA All-Star Game next year.
The NBA’s Utah Jazz called the ban “discriminatory legislation” and opposed it in a statement.
Before the veto, the ban received support from a majority of Utah lawmakers, but fell short of the two-thirds needed to override it. Its sponsors on Friday successfully flipped 10 Republicans in the House and five in the Senate who had previously voted against the proposal.
Cox was the second GOP governor this week to overrule lawmakers on a sports-participation ban, but the proposal won support from a vocal conservative base that has particular sway in Utah’s state primary season. Even with primaries looming, however, some Republicans stood with Cox to reject the ban.
“I cannot support this bill. I cannot support the veto override and if it costs me my seat so be it. I will do the right thing, as I always do,” said Republican Sen. Daniel Thatcher.
With the override of Cox’s veto, a dozen states have some sort of ban on transgender kids in school sports. The state’s law takes effect July 1.
Not long ago efforts to regulate transgender kids’ participation in school sports failed to gain traction in statehouses, but in the past two years groups like the American Principles Project began a coordinated effort to promote the legislation throughout the country. Since last year, bans have been introduced in at least 25 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. This week, Arizona and Oklahoma passed bans and sent them to governors for final approval.
“You start these fights and inject them into politics,” said Terry Schilling, president of the American Principles Project. “You pass them in a few states and it starts to take on a life of its own and becomes organic. We helped start this fight and we’re helping carry it through, but a lot of this is coming from the local level.”
Leaders in the deeply conservative Utah say they need the law to protect women’s sports. The lawmakers argue more transgender athletes with possible physical advantages could eventually dominate the field and change the nature of women’s sports without legal intervention.
Utah has only one transgender girl playing in K-12 sports who would be affected by the ban. There have been no allegations of any of the four transgender youth athletes in Utah having a competitive advantage.
The group Visit Salt Lake, which hosts conferences, shows and events, said the override could cost the state $50 million in lost revenue. The Utah-based DNA-testing genealogy giant Ancestry.com also opposed it.
Salt Lake City is set to host the NBA All-Star game in February. League spokesman Mike Bass has said the league is “working closely” with the Jazz on the matter. The team is also partially owned by NBA all-star Dwyane Wade, who has a transgender daughter.
Ban supporters, though, say they planned ahead to blunt the impact of boycotts like those that forced North Carolina to repeal a law limiting which public restrooms transgender people could use, Schilling said. The American Principles Project strategically focused on early legislation in populous, economic juggernaut states like Texas and Florida that are hard to boycott. Once a precedent of muted economic backlash was set, the group expected smaller states would get similar treatment.
On Thursday and Friday, demonstrators for and against a ban rallied at Utah’s Capitol.
Utah has historically been among the nation’s most conservative states. But an influx of new residents and technology companies coupled with the growing influence of the tourism industry often sets the stage for heated debate over social issues in the state 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 student athletes to go before a government-appointed commission.
The proposal, although framed as a compromise, failed to gain traction on either side. LGBTQ advocates took issue with Republican politicians appointing commission members and evaluation criteria that included body measurements such as hip-to-knee ratio.
Then, in the final hours before the Legislature was set to adjourn earlier this month, GOP lawmakers supplanted the legislation with an all-out ban.
Birkeland, who is also a basketball coach, acknowledged the proposal had provoked emotion and criticism but said conversations with female student athletes compelled her to continue her effort.
“When we say, ‘This isn’t a problem in our state,’ what we say to those girls is, ‘Sit down, be quiet and make nice,’ ” she said.
Lawmakers anticipate court challenges similar to blocked bans in Idaho and West Virginia, where athletes have said the bans violate their civil rights. They’ve also argued the bans violate privacy rights, due to tests required if an athlete’s gender is challenged. The ACLU of Utah said on Friday that a lawsuit was inevitable.
Utah’s policy would revert to the commission if courts halt the ban.
The threat of lawsuits worries school districts and the Utah High School Athletic Association, which has said it lacks the funds to defend the policy in court. Later Friday, lawmakers are expected to change the bill so state money would cover legal fees.
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