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How Okla. Plans to Use 'Religious Freedom' to Harass Trans Kids 

How Okla. Plans to Use 'Religious Freedom' to Harass Trans Kids 

Oklahoma Senator Brian Bingman and House Speaker Jeffrey Hickman
From left; Oklahoma Senator Brian Bingman and House Speaker Jeffrey Hickman

Oklahoma Republicans want to impeach President Obama for protecting trans students. But first they want to make sure no God-fearing Christian student is forced to share a bathroom with a trans classmate. 

With barely a week left in this year's regular session, Republican lawmakers in Oklahoma have introduced two last-minute legislative efforts to penalize transgender students in the state.

Senate Bill 1619, introduced Thursday by Sen. Brian Bingman and House Speaker Jeff Hickman, aims to provide a so-called religious exemption for cisgender (nontrans) students who do not want to share a bathroom with a transgender student.

The legislation itself is unclear about its scope but outright rejects the very existence of transgender people, inaccurately declaring that "sex" is an immutable characteristic that is "identified at birth by that individual's anatomy." The bill includes no mention of how schools should accommodate intersex or nonbinary individuals, who may have anatomy that cannot be readily categorized as strictly "male" or "female."

Further, the bill falsely implies that allowing, for example, a transgender girl to use the women's restroom is equivalent to allowing a "male" to use the ladies' room. Essentially, SB 1619 refuses to recognize that, as the Department of Justice recently explained, transgender men are men, and transgender women are women.

The central premise of the legislation, as the American Civil Liberties Union notes, is that forcing cisgender students to share a bathroom with their transgender peers violates the cisgender student's freedom of religion. Although the bill does not explain how one's faith practice might be connected to another person's gender identity, it does create a new legal path for students -- or their parents -- to claim their religious freedom has been violated by sharing space with someone believed to be transgender.

Under SB 1619, any school that allows restrooms, locker rooms, or showers "designated for the exclusive use of the male sex to be accessed by members of the female sex," or vice versa, must also allow students and their guardians to file a formal request for "religious accommodation." The bill is unclear what precisely that accommodation should include, though it explicitly states that asking students who are uncomfortable sharing a restroom with trans peers to use a single-occupancy restroom or locker room is "not an allowable accommodation."

The legislation does not include directions for where transgender students should relieve themselves while on school grounds. However, it does declare that the current situation is an "emergency" that must be addressed immediately "for the preservation of the public peace, health and safety." As such, the legislation would take effect July 1 or immediately after it was signed into law -- whichever comes first.

"To be clear, transgender young people are the ones being targeted," said Human Rights Campaign communications director Jay Brown in a statement today. "Legislators should be working to find solutions that ensure that they are safe and treated equally by their school, not stigmatized by the people elected to protect them. Like so many of the anti-transgender bills we're seeing, this is a solution in search of a problem that does not exist. School districts across this country have had policies in place for more than a decade with no safety problems at all. This does nothing more than demean transgender students and undermine their dignity."

Oklahoma's SB 1619 directly takes aim at guidance released last week by the Obama administration (specifically the federal Departments of Education and Justice) that suggests public schools nationwide should allow transgender students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms and play on the sports teams that match their gender identity. The guidance, laid out in a letter to school districts across the country, is not legally binding but offers a set of "best practices" for respecting transgender youth, protecting student privacy, and adhering to federal civil rights protections against discrimination based on sex (which has long been held to include discrimination based on gender identity).

But those guidelines are also what prompted Oklahoma Republicans to file a resolution calling for the impeachment of President Barack Obama, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Senate Concurrent Resolution 43, introduced by Sen. Anthony Sykes and Rep. John Bennett, argues that the DOJ and DOE guidance "clearly and unequivocally exceeds the authority of the federal government." The resolution from state lawmakers goes on to ask Oklahoma's representatives in Congress to "file articles of impeachment against" Obama, Lynch, Duncan, and "any other federal official liable to impeachment who has exceeded his or her constitutional authority with respect to the letter referenced in this resolution."

"The legislature's attacks on Oklahoma's transgender youth are disappointing and unconscionable," said Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the ACLU of Oklahoma, in a statement today. "This hateful assault on some of Oklahoma's most vulnerable residents is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to divert attention away from Oklahoma's budget crisis. This proposed law does nothing to protect religious liberty, but rather attempts to use religion as a weapon to discriminate. We urge lawmakers to abandon this harmful legislation and spend their time and resources addressing the true financial crisis facing Oklahoma rather than continuing to demonize our youth."

Advocate Magazine - KehlaniAdvocate Magazine - Gus Kenworthy

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