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North Dakota, Kansas Governors Veto Anti-Trans Sports Bills

Governors Laura Kelly and Doug Burgum

The governors of North Dakota and Kansas have vetoed bills that would have barred transgender student-athletes from competing in school sports under their gender identity.

Gov. Doug Burgum, a Republican, vetoed the North Dakota bill Wednesday, while Democrat Laura Kelly of Kansas followed Thursday by vetoing her state's bill.

Burgum issued a statement saying the bill was not needed and would have “unforeseen consequences,” the Grand Forks Herald reports.

“North Dakota today has a level playing field and fairness in girls’ sports,” said Burgum, referencing the argument made by supporters of such legislation that trans girls and women have an unfair advantage over their cisgender counterparts. “We have every confidence that they will continue to ensure a level playing field for the 27,000 students who participate in North Dakota high school sports.”

Burgum said there has been “not a single recorded incident” of a trans girl seeking to play on a school sports team in the state. He also noted that since the restriction would apply only to public K-12 schools, not private or tribal ones, it would actually create an uneven playing field.

“The bill would unnecessarily inject the state into a local issue by creating a ban with myriad unforeseen consequences,” he said.

It would take a two-thirds majority of both the North Dakota House and Senate to override Burgum’s veto. The bill passed by that margin in the House but not the Senate. Both chambers have Republican majorities, and they are expected to vote on a potential override, the Herald reports. Burgum is a Republican but has a history of opposing some of his party’s anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and even supporting nondiscrimination legislation.

Civil rights groups praised his action. “House Bill 1298 was never about leveling the playing field for student athletes,” said a statement from Libby Skarin, campaigns director for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Dakota. “It was obvious from the beginning that this discriminatory legislation was about creating solutions to problems that don’t exist and, in the process, harming some of the most vulnerable people in our state. Nobody wins when politicians try to meddle in people’s lives like this. Nobody wins when we try to codify discrimination like this. We’re thrilled with Gov. Burgum’s decision to veto this bill.”

“Gov. Burgum heard the loud voices of the general public including transgender people and their families, medical experts and the business and sports communities coming together to oppose anti-transgender legislation,” Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David said in a Wednesday press release. “Public polling clearly shows that a vast majority of Americans, including 66 percent of Republicans, oppose this anti-transgender sports ban legislation. Further, these bills have dire consequences for transgender kids, who experience heightened levels of anxiety, depression, dysphoria, and suicidal ideation. Gov. Burgum recognized — as we hope other governors will — that these bills also have severe implications for states that pass enact this legislation, from economic consequences to taxpayer funded litigation to reputational damage. Transgender kids are kids and they deserve every opportunity that any kid does. Transgender kids and all North Dakotans will be better off because of Gov. Burgum’s decision tonight.”

Kelly had indicated Monday that she was likely to veto the Kansas bill, which would have applied to state colleges and universities as well as K-12 public schools. She issued this statement Thursday: “This legislation sends a devastating message that Kansas is not welcoming to all children and their families, including those who are transgender — who are already at a higher risk of bullying, discrimination, and suicide. As Kansans, we should be focused on how to include all students in extracurricular activities rather than how to exclude those who may be different than us. Kansas is an inclusive state and our laws should reflect our values. This law does not do that. This bill would also undoubtedly harm our ability to attract and retain businesses. It would send a signal to prospective companies that Kansas is more focused on unnecessary and divisive legislation, than strategic, pro-growth lawmaking. Therefore, under Article 2, Section 14(a) of the Constitution, I hereby veto Senate Bill 55.”

An override is unlikely, though supporters say they'll try. “Backers of the bill were eight votes short in the House and one short in the Senate of the supermajorities they would need to override a veto,” the Associated Press reports.

The HRC praised Kelly's action. “Gov. Kelly’s veto is a win for Kansas. The Human Rights Campaign is grateful for the governor’s support of transgender Kansans, and we look forward to continued partnership with her administration to ensure that the state legislature honors and protects the dignity of LGBTQ people. SB 55 was nothing more than a politically motived bill that seeks to dehumanize transgender Kansans. The Kansas state legislature must uphold the veto and shift its legislative priorities to critical matters that legitimately impact the state,” said a statement from David. “Transgender children are not seeking to gain an unfair competitive advantage. They are just children who want the opportunity to learn important skills of sportsmanship, competition, and teamwork with their peers.” 

“This discriminatory legislation — pushed forward by state legislators in the middle of the night — has no place in the state of Kansas. This veto will prevent further discrimination against transgender kids who are simply trying to play sports with their friends,” added HRC State Director Shawn Copeland. “Transgender girls are girls, and transgender children are children. They deserve the chance to participate in athletic activities without fear of discrimination or exclusion. Fellow governors must follow the lead of Gov. Kelly and veto anti-LGBTQ bills in their respective states.” 

2021 is poised to become the worst year ever for anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, according to the HRC. “The previous record — six years ago in 2015, when 15 anti-LGBTQ bills were enacted into law — is poised to be shattered as early as this week, as eight anti-LGBTQ bills have already been enacted into law and another ten are already on governors’ desks awaiting signature (if signed into law, more anti-LGBTQ legislation will have been enacted this year than in the last three years combined). In addition, several more bills are expected to pass through their second chamber next week,” says an HRC press release.

Trans-exclusionary sports bills have been signed into law this year in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee, part of this flood of anti-trans and more broadly anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. A similar bill was signed into law in Idaho last year, but it has been blocked by a federal judge as a court challenge to it proceeds.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem had opposed a bill to this effect in her state because she wanted it to apply only to K-12 public schools and not state colleges and universities; she apparently feared repercussions from the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which has threatened to avoid holding championships in states with discriminatory laws. But legislators wouldn’t make that change, and Noem, under fire by fellow conservatives, ended up issuing executive orders barring trans athletes from sports at both K-12 schools and institutions of higher education. She also said she is forming a national coalition to promote exclusionary policies. In Utah, an anti-trans sports bill died after Gov. Spencer Cox expressed reservations about it. 

Among other anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, in Arkansas, lawmakers overrode Gov. Asa Hutchinson's veto of a bill banning gender-affirming health care for trans minors. Hutchinson signed another anti-LGBTQ+ bill into law, allowing health care providers to opt out of procedures that offend their religious or moral sensibilities, even if they're only indirectly involved. And South Dakota's Noem signed a more general "religious refusals" bill into law, enabling discrimination not only in health care but in other areas.

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