President Beth Dobkin signed a joint letter with other Utah colleges Feb. 27 opposing HB302, “Preserving Sports for Female Students.” The bill, which is under consideration in the Utah Legislature during the 2021 session, would bar transgender girls in K-12 schools from participating in female sports at their schools.
HB302, proposed by Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan during the third week of the session, currently occupies the national spotlight in the debate about transgender people in sports. After some contention among Capitol Hill, the bill was amended Feb. 11 to exclude institutions of higher education — therefore, no longer directly impacting Westminster College.
Nonetheless, Westminster is joining three other higher education institutions — the University of Utah, Utah State University and Salt Lake Community College — as well as civil rights organizations in opposing the bill. These organizations include the ACLU of Utah and Equality Utah — as well as opposition from Utah Democrats and Gov. Spencer Cox.
Gov. Cox, responding to a question from Westminster alum and Salt Lake Tribune reporter Taylor Stevens during a Feb. 18 press conference, said that he’s “not in a place yet where [he’s] comfortable with the bill as it stands right now.” He followed up saying that he would continue to take meetings with Rep. Birkeland to improve the bill.
“This is not a Utah issue,” Cox said. “This is an issue that every state and every country is working through right now, at this moment.”
Utah is one of at least 20 states considering similar legislation. State legislators across the nation point to the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) as a connection point between many of the bills being proposed.
ADF, a conservative Christian group, was founded in 1994 to advocate in legislative and judicial battles across the country. The group is considered an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and at least one representative in the Utah Legislature has cited their testimonials as an influential factor in the bill’s passage through the U.S. House of Representatives.
“They’ve been promoting this very bill, shopping it around to [around] 11 different states, trying to get this passed,” Rep. Carol Spackman-Moss, D-Salt Lake City, told The Forum.
Rep. Moss said that the bill is not only unnecessary but also discriminatory.
“First of all, there’s not been one case in Utah, in high school sports, where a transgender girl has wanted to play on a girls’ sports team,” Rep. Moss said. “And [the Utah High School Activities Association’s] rules already state that a transgender student, a girl, would have to have been on hormones for [a given number] of months prior to playing on a team.”
Rep. Susan Pulsipher, R-South Jordan, said she supported the bill because it maintains a level playing field for cisgender female athletes.
“Girls don’t have the option to play on boys’ teams,” Pulsipher said. “For so many years, girls’ sports have taken a backseat to boys’ sports.”
Certain language in the bill is similar to other proposed legislation in Idaho and Montana, with some whole paragraphs being nearly identical to Idaho HB500, entitled “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act.”
In the statement President Dobkin signed onto, Kate Charipar, the associate athletics director for Compliance at the University of Utah, pointed out that the Idaho law is already facing federal and judicial pressure.
“Department of Education, the entity that enforces Title IX, explicitly requires that transgender participants be counted consistent with their gender identity, regardless of the sex indicated on their identification records,” Charipar said in her statement. “For these reasons, the adoption of HB302 will find its way to the courts, like similar laws in Idaho and Montana, and in the meantime, Utah schools and the state will suffer both financially and competitively.”
As a result, several opponents of the bill argued they aren’t sure the bill would be upheld against the Supreme Court.
With opposition from so many sectors of Utah politics, it is unlikely that Gov. Cox will sign the bill into law, even if it manages to pass the Senate. The governor signaled he was hesitant to sign the bill unless significant language changes were made.
In its most recent reading Feb. 24, the bill stalled on the Senate floor — even after substitutions from Rep. Birkeland that would allow transgender girls to practice with female sports teams, but still bar them from competitions.