The state's House Education Committee voted 8-6 in favor of the controversial HB 302 measure on Feb. 11. The bill titled "Preserving Sports for Female Students" passed after two hours of debate in the lower house. Rep. Kiera Birkeland (R-Morgan), HB 302's author, said schools would be required to categorize all athletic activities as "male," "female" or "co-ed" once her bill becomes law.
According to Birkeland, she sees her bill as a way to "improve fairness and equality with women's sports." She told the committee during the Feb. 11 session: "Across America, there are stories of individuals who identified as male at birth competing against our female athletes. These individuals who identify as male as birth are breaking records that no female will be able to reach. They're taking championships, titles and scholarships from our female athletes. To say it's taking a toll on our female athletes would be an understatement.
A number of Utahns expressed their support toward Birkeland's proposed legislation. Gayle Ruzicka of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum said transgender girls competing in girls' sporting events would signal the end of women's sports. She pointed out that people born biologically male are "generally bigger, faster [and] stronger" and have "larger hearts and lungs, denser bones and stronger muscles."
Two female members of the Southern Utah University track team also spoke out in support of the bill. They detailed their anguish after competing against a transgender woman from another state. One urged other lawmakers to support the bill so that no woman feels "like they've lost [even] before the starting gun goes off." (Related: Transgender athlete smashes four women's powerlifting records.)
Notably, HB 302 does not address transgender boys, who purportedly are permitted under the bill to join athletic activities for those born male. It also does not address intersex people – those born with both male and female traits.
Equality Utah Executive Director Troy Williams criticized the bill because of its discriminatory nature against transgender youth. He remarked: "It tells some children, 'you can't play, you don't belong on the field.' That's discrimination." Williams exhorted lawmakers to slow down when it comes to transgender legislation and "collaborate together" rather than sowing division.
In response to Williams and other critics, Birkeland said she had many transgender friends and she did not intend to exclude them from sports. "But we have to weigh that against what is fair for our female athletes," she explained.
Even more than the apparent discriminatory nature, a legislative attorney said the bill is facing "significant risk" for possibly violating the Constitution. Attorney Michael Curtis of the Utah Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel warned the committee that HB 302's passage was "certainly highly risky" given a recent Supreme Court ruling and cases from other jurisdictions.
He added: "It's possible, if not probable, that a court would hold [the bill] unconstitutional."
Curtis' warning comes in light of an August 2020 decision by a federal judge blocking a similar ban on transgender women in female sporting events. Idaho Chief Judge David C. Nye blocked the implementation of Idaho's Fairness in Women's Sports Act that month. He wrote in his decision that plaintiffs suing the state over the law "are likely to succeed in establishing the Act is unconstitutional as currently written."
The law which went into effect at the beginning of July 2020 will now be on pause as Nye continues to decide whether the law violated multiple clauses of the Fourth Amendment and 14th Amendment.
The federal judge wrote in his Aug. 17 decision that Idaho's ban is "in stark contrast to the policies of elite athletic bodies that regulate sports both nationally and globally." These athletic bodies allow transgender women to participate in sports provided they meet certain requirements. Nye further remarked that the law "burdens all female athletes with the risk and embarrassment of having to 'verify' their 'biological sex' in order to play women's sports." (Related: How Testosterone-fueled Trans athletes are erasing women in sports.)
"The Court recognizes that this decision is likely to be controversial … [but the] Constitution must always prevail," the federal judge commented.