Sen. Mary Souza HB 500a

Sen. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene, opens debate on HB 500a, the transgender athletes bill, on Monday, March 16, 2020, in the Idaho Senate.

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BOISE — The Idaho Senate voted 24-11 Monday to ban transgender girls and women from playing on female high school and college sports teams.

The tense debate and vote came near the end of a long day in which numerous bills passed, a few were defeated, and lawmakers pushed hard to wrap up their session early in the face of the spread of coronavirus; the Senate remained in session until well after 8 p.m.

Among the day's many developments were:

  • The second defeat in the House for Idaho's higher education budget, followed by passage of a third new version by the joint budget committee;
  • Continued House-Senate conflict over property tax relief proposals;
  • A party-line vote in a Senate committee backing new public records exemptions for legislators, a measure that already had passed the House;
  • Strong support in a House committee for a statewide hands-free law for drivers on cellphones. 

In the transgender athletes debate, when opponents pointed to an Idaho attorney general’s opinion finding that the bill has constitutional problems that would make it difficult to defend in court, Sen. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene, the bill’s Senate sponsor, said, “There is a third-party group that has been working with us on this bill and it will be responsible for any legal defense fees.”

After the vote, Souza said the group is the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom, but said she didn’t know the details.

The “Fairness in Women's Sports Act,” which was sponsored in the House by Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, would ban transgender people who were born male from girls' and women's sports teams. In case of a dispute over a student's gender, a school would request the student “provide a health examination and consent form or other statement signed by the student’s personal health care provider.”

The bill says they “may verify the student’s biological sex as part of a routine sports physical examination” with one of or a combination of an examination of the student’s physical anatomy, genetic makeup or the testosterone their body produces. It also directs the state Board of Education to draft rules to resolve disputes. The amendment didn’t add any restrictions on who can challenge a student athlete’s gender. The bill’s supporters have pitched it as a way to defend girls and women from unfair competition.

"This bill protects Title IX," said Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell. "It doesn’t destroy it. It protects those opportunities."

Its opponents said it could subject girls and young women to invasive examinations and get Idaho embroiled in a losing lawsuit. Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii called on Gov. Brad Little to veto the bill should it reach his desk.

“It’s clear that our legislators are more interested in pushing their transphobia through the legislature, regardless of who it damages, than in listening to the facts,” said Mistie Tolman, Idaho state director for the organization. “We have worked to appeal to their sense of compassion for how transgender people will be treated, how they will be ostracized further by this legislation, and the very true danger this would pose to a population of their constituency that is already fighting against being othered. Transgender people, and transgender youth in particular, just want to be able to live their lives free from harassment and with community, something that playing on the sports team that matches their identity has already provided them in Idaho for years. Today, instead of acknowledging their humanity, the Senate chose to give the trans community yet another cold shoulder."

Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon, one of four Republicans to vote against the bill, said it would burden women and girls who would struggle to pay for a doctor to perform an examination. Challenges over someone’s gender would not stay confidential, he said, leading to fights between parents and harming girls whose gender would be brought into question.

“The net has been cast so wide and will negatively affect many,” he said.

Sen. Maryanne Jordan, D-Boise, told the Senate, “This bill is not only a solution in search of a problem, but an unnecessary piece of legislation in search of a court case.” She noted that Idaho’s business community is “literally imploring us not to do this.”

Similar bills have been introduced in several other states this year. Ehardt worked with the Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona-based socially conservative group that opposes letting transgender girls take part in girls’ sports, to craft the bill. Much of the language in it is identical to one that was introduced in Mississippi earlier this year.

Two other transgender-related bills, one to ban transgender people from changing their birth certificates and one to require a doctor's signoff for minors to change their birth certificates, are also still in the Senate. It remains to be seen what will happen with them.

Ehardt's bill already passed the House but will now need to head back there to pass again since the Senate amended it before heading to Little's desk.

Lawmakers scrambled Monday to move all budget bills ahead on their calendars, because they can't end their session without setting a balanced budget. That way, if there's an emergency adjournment due to coronavirus, they'd be prepared to drop everything else, but some showed little interest in doing that.

Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, debated against the second higher ed budget in the House, which died on a 23-47 vote.

“We need to tell the colleges and universities … we’re going to get serious about cutting budgets,” Crane told the House.

He said new BSU President Marlene Tromp hasn't been sufficiently responsive to a group of GOP lawmakers' concerns about diversity and inclusion programs. “She went out and hired a vice president of diversity,” Crane said. “That was a direct affront to me as a legislator.”


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