SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers voted Friday to override GOP Gov. Spencer Cox's veto of legislation banning transgender youth athletes from playing on girls teams — a move that comes amid a nationwide culture war over transgender issues.
Before the veto, the ban received support from a majority of Utah lawmakers, but fell short of the two-thirds needed to override it. Its sponsors on Friday successfully flipped 10 Republicans in the House and five in the Senate who had previously voted against the proposal.
Cox was the second GOP governor this week to overrule lawmakers on a sports-participation ban, and his veto letter drew national attention with a poignant argument that such laws target vulnerable kids who already have high rates of suicide attempts. Business leaders are sounding the alarm that it could have a multimillion-dollar economic impact for the state, including the possible loss of the NBA All-Star Game next year.
But the ban won support from a vocal conservative base that has particular sway in Utah's state primary season. Even with primaries looming, however, some Republicans stood with Cox to reject the ban.
"I cannot support this bill. I cannot support the veto override and if it costs me my seat so be it. I will do the right thing, as I always do," said Republican Sen. Daniel Thatcher.
With the override of Cox's veto, Utah becomes the 12th state to enact some sort of ban on transgender kids in school sports. The state's law takes effect July 1.
Not long ago efforts to regulate transgender kids' participation in school sports failed to gain traction in statehouses, but in the past two years groups like the American Principles Project began a coordinated effort to promote the legislation throughout the country. Since last year, bans have been introduced in at least 25 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. This week, Arizona and Oklahoma passed bans and sent them to governors for final approval.
"You start these fights and inject them into politics," said Terry Schilling, president of the American Principles Project. "You pass them in a few states and it starts to take on a life of its own and becomes organic. We helped start this fight and we're helping carry it through, but a lot of this is coming from the local level."
Leaders in the deeply conservative Utah say they need the law to protect women's sports. As cultural shifts raise LGBTQ visibility, the lawmakers argue that, without their intervention, more transgender athletes with apparent physical advantages could eventually dominate the field and change the nature of women's sports.
Utah has only one transgender girl playing in K-12 sports who would be affected by the ban. There have been no allegations of any of the four transgender youth athletes in Utah having a competitive advantage.
The owner of the Utah Jazz, tech entrepreneur Ryan Smith, tweeted opposition to the bill, saying it was "rushed, flawed and won't hold up over time. I'm hopeful we can find a better way."
The team is also partially owned by NBA all-star Dwyane Wade, who has a transgender daughter.
Salt Lake City is set to host the NBA All-Star game in February 2023. League spokesman Mike Bass has said the league is "working closely" with the Jazz on the matter.
The group Visit Salt Lake, which hosts conferences, shows and events, said the override could cost the state $50 million in lost revenue. The Utah-based DNA-testing genealogy giant Ancestry.com also urged the Legislature to find another way.
The American Principles Project is confident that states with bans won't face boycotts like North Carolina did after limiting public restrooms transgender people could use. It focused on legislation in populous, economic juggernaut states like Texas and Florida that would be harder to boycott, Schilling said.
On Thursday and Friday, demonstrators both in favor of and against a ban rallied at the Utah's Capitol, spotlighting what they saw as its potential effects.
Utah has historically been among the nation's most conservative states. But an influx of new residents and technology companies coupled with the growing influence of the tourism industry often sets the stage for heated debate over social issues in the state home to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Friday's deliberations came after more than a year of debate and negotiation between social conservatives and LGBTQ advocates. Republican sponsor Rep. Kera Birkeland worked with Cox and civil rights activists at Equality Utah before introducing legislation that would require transgender student-athletes to go before a government-appointed commission.
The proposal, although framed as a compromise, failed to gain traction on either side. LGBTQ advocates took issue with Republican politicians appointing commission members and evaluation criteria that included body measurements such as hip-to-knee ratio.
Then, in the final hours before the Legislature was set to adjourn earlier this month, GOP lawmakers supplanted the legislation with an all-out ban.
Birkeland, who is also a basketball coach, acknowledged the proposal had provoked emotion and criticism, but said conversations with female student athletes compelled her to continue her effort.
"When we say, 'This isn't a problem in our state,' what we say to those girls is, 'Sit down, be quiet and make nice,'" she said.
Lawmakers anticipate court challenges similar to blocked bans in Idaho and West Virginia. Utah's policy would revert to the commission if courts halt the ban.
The looming threat of a lawsuit worries school districts and the Utah High School Athletic Association, which has said it lacks the funds to defend the policy in court. Later Friday, lawmakers are expected to change the bill so state money would cover legal fees.