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Utah Legislature overrides governor's veto of transgender sports ban bill

Utah is now the 12th state to implement bans targeting transgender athletes.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox speaks in Salt Lake City on March 18, 2021.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox speaks in Salt Lake City on March 18, 2021.Spenser Heaps / The Deseret News via AP file

Utah state lawmakers on Friday overrode their Republican governor’s veto of a bill that would ban transgender students from playing girls’ sports, ensuring the controversial piece of legislation will go into effect.

During a special session called specifically to consider a veto override, both Republican-controlled chambers of the state Legislature met the two-thirds threshold to revive the bill.

The measure passed 21-8 in the Senate and 56-18 in the House. Ten Republicans in Utah's state House and five in the state Senate who had previously voted against the bill changed their votes to support the bill during the override session. Both chambers voted on Friday without additional debate.

The legislation is slated to go into effect July 1.

Under the forthcoming law, transgender girls will be prohibited from playing on school sports teams aligning with their gender identity. The bill’s language bars “a student of the male sex from competing against another school on a team designated for female students.” It defines “sex” as the “biological, physical condition of being male or female, determined by an individual’s genetics and anatomy at birth.”

Lawmakers passed the bill earlier this month in the final hours of their legislative session.

The veto override vote came just days after Republican Gov. Spencer Cox penned a heartfelt letter to legislators in which he said he’d been moved by data showing that including transgender youth in sports could reduce suicide rates within the group.

"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,” Cox wrote.

He also cited statistics showing that while 75,000 kids played high school sports in Utah, only four were transgender, with just one involved in girls' sports.

“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,” he wrote. “Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few.”

“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,” he added.

Utah Senate President Stuart Adams said Friday that the bill “is not about discrimination, it’s about keeping sports fair.”

Cox, recognizing that a veto was likely, had called the special session to allow the Legislature to amend the bill and provide funding for school districts and youth sports organizations that anticipate facing lawsuits.

"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," Cox said in a statement.

Cox had warned that the bill passed earlier this month would invite lawsuits that could bankrupt the state’s high school athletics governing body. The additional special session was scheduled Friday afternoon for lawmakers to address financial issues the new law might create.

"I remain hopeful that we will continue to work toward a more inclusive, fair and compassionate policy during the interim," Cox said Friday.

Utah is now the 12th state — after Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia — to implement bans targeting transgender athletes.