Utah Legislature overrides Gov. Cox’s veto of transgender athletes sports ban

‘Just let the kids play,” Utah House Democrats said.

During an impassioned debate, the Utah Legislature on Friday voted to override Gov. Spencer Cox’s veto of a controversial bill that would bar transgender girls from participating in school sports matching their gender identities.

The bill is set to take effect July 1.

[Related: How each member voted and who switched | Sen. Thatcher stood up for kids, even though it may end his political career, Gehrke writes]

The House voted 56-18 in favor of the override, with Democrats and two Republicans voting against it. State Reps. Robert Spendlove and Mike Winder were the sole House Republicans to vote against an override.

In the Senate, lawmakers voted 21-8 to override the veto. The Democrats were joined by Republican Sens. Todd Weiller of Woods Cross and Daniel Thatcher of West Valley City.

The bill, HB11, originally intended to create a commission charged with evaluating whether a transgender athlete could participate in a school sport — a compromise that avoided an outright ban. But during final hours of the legislative session earlier this month, the Legislature passed a last-minute amendment to the bill that banned transgender girls from participating in female school sports.

During the override session, the bill’s sponsor state Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, said, “I truly believe we’re here to uphold Title IX, to preserve the integrity of women’s sports and to do so in a way unlike other states.”

Birkeland defended the bill, adding that if the legislation were to pass, transgender athletes would still be allowed to participate in co-ed sports.

State Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, acknowledged that the topic of transgender athletes playing in high school sports was “an incredibly contentious and divisive issue.”

“I think though, at this point, we are doing our best to try to thread a needle ... to preserve women’s sports and find a path forward,” she said.

House Minority Leader Brian King said the issue is more complicated than how conservatives have portrayed it.

“Things are not simply black and white, in terms of gender orientation, sexual orientation, gender identification. It’s definitely not accurate to say that girls are girls and boys are boys,” he said, a comment which drew moans from the public. “Our public education students deserve better than that from us.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Onlookers in the gallery of the House Chamber as the Utah Legislature voted to override Gov. Spencer Cox’s veto of HB11, which bars transgender girls from participating in school sports matching their gender identities, in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 25, 2022.

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Salt Lake City, criticized lawmakers for amending and passing the bill during the final hours of the legislative session.

“We want to prevent something that has not occurred, has not created a problem. So we’re looking for a solution when there is no problem,” she said.

Republican state Rep. Judy Weeks Rohner defended the bill, saying she would support an override.

“We are here to make good policy, we are here to protect children. We are here to protect all children,” she said.

The Senate made swift work of the veto override, moving to a vote with little discussion. Sens. Lincoln Fillmore, Mike Kennedy, Mike McKell, Ann Millner along with Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers flipped to a “yea” vote to secure the override.

Friday’s rushed veto override session was driven by more than policy disagreements with the governor.

Utah’s election season kicks off in earnest on Saturday morning with five Republican County Conventions on the schedule. Several Republican lawmakers are facing fierce nomination challenges from the political right, and the topic of transgender athletes in school sports is one of the more divisive issues in the party.

Only two Republicans in the Senate voted against the override, Sens. Thatcher and Weiler. Thatcher, who has three GOP challengers lined up hoping to wrest the GOP nomination from him, said he was voting “no” because the bill would likely lead to an expensive legal challenge because it’s likely unconstitutional.

“How can I uphold my oath to defend the constitution by voting for a bill we know is unconstitutional? This bill will never go into effect. It’s political theater, because we won’t get any of the benefits but all of the harms,” Thatcher said while admitting that his “no” vote may cost him his seat.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, speaks as the Utah Legislature voted to override Gov. Spencer Cox’s veto of HB11, which bars transgender girls from participating in school sports matching their gender identities, in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 25, 2022.

“I will have to explain to my delegates why I voted against what they want on an issue they care about more than any other issue I’ve seen them care about before. If I lose my race because of that, then so be it,” Thatcher added.

Ahead of the override session, Republican lawmakers, including Birkeland, and the Utah Eagle Forum, held a rally outside the Capitol steps in support of the bill, vowing to override Cox’s veto in the name of protecting women’s sports.

“I often get asked the question of why so rushed. Why this process? Well, it’s simple. For almost two years, we tried to come up with other options,” Birkeland said. “We could not get a compromise. So anyone who tells you there was a compromise. Why did you switch from the compromise? There was never a compromise. ... You cannot compromise women’s liberties.”

During the emotional rally, supporters of LGBTQ rights chanted, “Trans rights!” while lawmakers were speaking at the podium.

‘Inevitable’ lawsuits

The bill includes a clause that if a lawsuit over the ban is taken to a Utah court and is found to be unconstitutional, the commission will take effect. Senate President Stuart Adams said litigation over the bill is expected.

The Legislature also proposed and passed a bill that would indemnify high schools over legal costs if they’re sued over the legislation, addressing concerns that the ban would result in a costly legal battle at the expense of the Utah High School Activities Association, which represents nearly 160 high schools.

That bill, HB3001, would appropriate a one-time $500,000 from the state’s General Fund for schools or local education agencies to cover legal costs.

The ACLU of Utah said litigation over the transgender youth school sports bill was certain.

“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,” the organization said in a written statement. “Litigation to stop H.B. 11 from taking effect is now both necessary and inevitable to ensure Constitutional promises of equal protection to all Utahns.”

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said the issue of fairness in girls’ sports outweighed any threat of litigation.

“What about biological females who believe they’re being discriminated against because they can’t compete? This particular issue of fairness and equality in women’s sports is something many of us are concerned about,” Bramble said.

‘Just let the kids play’

In a four-page letter addressed to legislative leaders this week that has since gone viral, Cox explained why he vetoed the initial bill.

“I must admit, I am not an expert on transgenderism. I struggle to understand so much of it and the science is conflicting. When in doubt however, I always try to err on the side of kindness, mercy and compassion,” he wrote. “I don’t understand what they are going through or why they feel the way they do. But I want them to live.”

Cox said out of the 75,000 children registered to play school sports in the state, only four are transgender children.

Several state and local leaders, as well as progressive organizations, also called on the state Legislature to let the bill die and allow the Republican governor’s veto to stand.

Despite the Utah Legislature overriding his veto, Cox said he looked forward to continued talks over the bill during the interim.

“I am grateful the Legislature recognized that there were serious flaws with HB11 and for the heightened debate and input that legislators were able to receive over the past few weeks. I called a Special Session today to fix at least one flaw in the bill, and we’re heartened that the Legislature agreed to indemnify school districts and the Utah High School Activities Association from the enormous financial burden that inevitable litigation will have on them,” he said in a statement.

The Utah House Democrats condemned Republicans for challenging Cox’s veto.

“This bill is designed to score political points at the expense of kids who just want to play sports. It causes nothing but undue harm to transgender girls and boys across our state, when what they really deserve is support, reassurance, and love,” the statement ready. “Is this really the Utah Way? Just let the kids play.”

Real Salt Lake, the capital city-based professional soccer club, was also against the lawmaker’s override.

“Real Salt Lake stands opposed to legislating discrimination. Our Club remains steadfastly committed to the ‘Soccer for ALL’ tenets of inclusion, respect, and fair play,” RSL said in a statement. “Beyond the field, we always strive for equitable solutions that demonstrate love and compassion for all, especially the youth in our community.”

The Utah Jazz on Friday released a statement opposing the legislation and calling it “discriminatory.”

“The Utah Jazz oppose discriminatory legislation. 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.”

Legislative leaders seemed unphased by the expression of concern from the Jazz or the possibility the NBA could relocate next year’s All-Star Game, which is slated for Salt Lake City.

“The NBA hasn’t talked to me. That seems hypothetical to me. I’d like to hear from them and what their plans are in other states that have passed a similar bill, including Florida and Texas, which have multiple NBA teams,” Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton said.

“I’m a season ticket holder and I’m looking forward to the All-Star Game next year,” Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said. “If the NBA has concerns about policy that we’ve passed, I’d be happy to chat with them. I’d like to hear their thoughts on how we should manage this situation.”

In a statement, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said passing the legislation harmed the state’s transgender youth.

“This is a sad day for all of Utah. Today, certain legislators chose to be unnecessarily cruel to children to pick up political points and follow national talking points. I echo Governor Cox’s shock that this much anger and fear has been directed at four students,” she said. “Our county, our children, and our state deserves better.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) More than a thousand protesters gather on the steps of the Capitol, in support of transgender youth, on Thursday, March 24, 2022.

Salt Lake District Attorney Sim Gill, in a letter, urged lawmakers to support Cox’s veto.

“Transgender children across Utah are looking to the legislature to answer a more fundamental question: Do I belong here? 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,” he wrote. “Not to mention wasted tax dollars, loss of economic opportunity, and an invasion on the personal choices of the family all resulting in bad public policy.”

Correction: March 26, 4:50 a.m. • This story has been updated to correctly attribute statements to Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson and Utah County Mayor Jenny Wilson.