SALT LAKE CITY — Governor Spencer Cox vetoed a bill banning transgender children from participating in school sports, but the legislature is expected to override him.
FOX 13 News first reported on Tuesday that lawmakers were being polled to decide whether to override the governor's veto of House Bill 11. Sources on Utah's Capitol Hill tell FOX 13 News they believe they have flipped enough votes, with many lawmakers facing tough re-election battles. The veto override will happen Friday, with the governor reluctantly issuing a call for a special session.
"While Gov. Cox and I disagree on this bill, I respect the legislative process. We have been listening to our constituents, talking with experts, and we feel it's important to make decisions now that protect athletes and ensure women are not edged out of their sport. Creating a safe and fair environment for athletes takes work. We care deeply for all students, but we can not ignore the scientific facts that biological boys are built differently than girls," Senate President J. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said in a statement. "Doing nothing is taking a step backward for women. Finding a solution to this complicated issue is necessary to maintain fair competition now and in the future."
The bill, however, will be modified to win over support from reluctant Republicans in the House and Senate. In addition to objecting to the all-out ban on transgender children, Gov. Cox complained that the bill did not offer legal protections for school districts in the event of a lawsuit. FOX 13 News is told the bill will be modified to provide $500,000 in legal protections for school districts and the Utah High School Activities Association. That requires a special session.
The bill still would ban transgender children from participating in school sports in middle and high schools. However, in the event Utah loses an inevitable lawsuit, a special commission would be put in place to evaluate transgender children's eligibility to play sports. Gov. Cox had backed the commission and been actively negotiating the bill with LGBTQ rights groups and lawmakers.
On the last night of the session, however, lawmakers passed an amendment instituting the all-out ban. Gov. Cox said it went too far and vowed a veto. Lawmakers have tried to persuade the governor not to veto the bill.
On Tuesday afternoon, the governor issued the veto.
"I believe in fairness and protecting the integrity of women’s sports. I know both of you are committed to these same ideals and that we have worked very hard together to resolve the many issues surrounding transgender student participation in sports. Unfortunately, HB11 has several fundamental flaws and should be reconsidered," Gov. Cox wrote in a letter to House Speaker Brad Wilson and President Adams.
In the letter, the governor outlined the legal concerns but also called for compassion for transgender children. He pointed out there are only four transgender children playing school sports who would be banned from participating, out of 75,000 student athletes in Utah.
"Four kids and only one of them playing girls sports. That’s what all of this is about. Four kids who aren’t dominating or winning trophies or taking scholarships. Four kids who are just trying to find some friends and feel like they are a part of something. Four kids trying to get through each day. Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few. I don’t understand what they are going through or why they feel the way they do. But I want them to live. And all the research shows that even a little acceptance and connection can reduce suicidality significantly," the governor wrote. "For that reason, as much as any other, I have taken this action in the hope that we can continue to work together and find a better way. If a veto override occurs, I hope we can work to find ways to show these four kids that we love them and they have a place in our state."
LGBTQ rights groups reacted with disappointment at the legislature's planned override.
"It’s incredibly disappointing that this boogeyman that we’ve created, these young kids are warranting so much attention, so much extra effort to try and shut some young people out of opportunities. It seems a bit much," said Dr. Candice Metzler, the executive director of Transgender Education Advocates of Utah. "It’s hard not to take it in a way that’s seen as disingenuous. This is about political advantage this is about anything but these young people we claim to be protecting."
Dr. Metzler praised Gov. Cox for his veto and compassion toward transgender people. Equality Utah criticized lawmakers as protecting their own political careers.
"This was never about protecting women's sports, this is about politicians protecting themselves from primary challenges from the extreme right," the group said in a statement. "Many lawmakers have called us to say they hate the bill, but they will vote for it because they fear primary challenges. To shield themselves, they will use marginalized children as political pawns."
Meeting with reporters on Tuesday, Speaker Wilson said they were listening to constituents.
"Lawmakers want to make the policy clear and move on. It’s in everyone’s best interest," he said. "We’re hearing a lot from parents concerned about this so legislature wants to address this issue as quickly as possible and get that clarity out there."
The American Civil Liberties Union signaled its willingness to sue the state in a letter to Gov. Cox shared with FOX 13 News.
"The ACLU of Utah is ready to litigate to protect the rights of transgender students in Utah," the group said.
The bill's sponsor praised the legislature for the veto override and said she was hopeful they could find something for transgender children.
"If we can get this passed and move forward... we can start in finding opportunities for transgender youth that doesn’t take away opportunities for these girls," said Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan.
Read Gov. Cox's entire veto letter here: