BISMARCK — Gov. Doug Burgum vetoed a proposal Wednesday, April 21, that would restrict the participation of transgender athletes in K-12 sports in North Dakota.
The Republican governor's decision comes after House Bill 1298 was approved by a convincing 69-25 vote in the House and a more narrow 27-20 vote in the Senate last week. The bill needs a two-thirds majority in both chambers to override a veto, a threshold it met in the House but did not reach in the Senate.
In a statement, Burgum said there is no evidence to support the legislation's premise that fairness in girls' sports is endangered under current laws.
"North Dakota today has a level playing field and fairness in girls' sports," Burgum said, crediting leadership and existing policies under the North Dakota High School Activities Association. "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."
The proposal states that K-12 public schools in North Dakota cannot "knowingly allow an individual of the opposite sex" to join an exclusively male or female sports team, effectively barring transgender students from competing alongside athletes of their identifying gender.
In the veto statement, Burgum said there has been "not a single recorded incident" of a transgender girl attempting to play on a girls sports team in North Dakota, and noted that changing the policy under the NDHSAA would not apply to private or tribal schools, meaning that the bill itself could create an unlevel playing field.
"The bill would unnecessarily inject the state into a local issue by creating a ban with myriad unforeseen consequences," the governor added.
House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, and Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, each said ahead of Burgum's decision that they expect the House and Senate to hold votes to override the governor's veto. Both majority leaders voted for the bill when it appeared on their respective chamber floors last week.
Proponents of the bill argued for it as a needed measure to preserve fairness in girls sports. Edinburg Sen. Janne Myrdal, its lead sponsor, criticized the governor's veto Wednesday night and said she would fight for a vote to override it in the Senate chamber.
"I think he just told all the parents of young girls that they don't matter when it comes to Title IX," she said, invoking the 1972 federal law prohibiting sex-based discrimination in schools. "On this particular issue — with no disrespect to the governor — he's dead wrong."
The transgender athlete restriction drew opposition from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers this session, who have said that its passage would have dangerous mental health repercussions for members of the transgender and LGBT communities in North Dakota. Critics also warned that the policy would drive out corporate investment and create costly, unnecessary lawsuits for the state.
The governor's decision to veto was praised by LGBT rights groups like the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition, Tri-State Transgender and the American Civil Liberties Union of North Dakota after the announcement on Wednesday evening.
“House Bill 1298 was never about leveling the playing field for student athletes. 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," said Libby Skarin, a campaign director for the ACLU, in a statement. "We’re thrilled with Gov. Burgum’s decision to veto this bill.”
The proposal went through several iterations this session, and the version approved in both chambers is narrower than original language that applied to public universities and state-sponsored venues. Those provisions were removed to guard against legal challenges.
Though the bill bars schools from allowing a student to join a sports team of the opposite "biological sex," it includes an exception for girls hoping to join teams that don't have both male and female squads, a provision lawmakers noted would allow girls to plays sports like football.
Burgum has been a vocal advocate on LGBT issues in the past. Two years ago, the governor's office spoke in favor of a bill to create statutory protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation in North Dakota. He was also quick to denounce anti-LGBT statements that were approved in a state GOP party platform last summer.
North Dakota's transgender athlete bill is part of a national flood of legislation that would restrict or bar the participation of trans students in school sports. More than 30 states have taken up legislation this year that would restrict the participation of transgender youth in state-sponsored sports leagues, according to the ACLU.
In neighboring South Dakota, Gov. Kristi Noem found herself in hot water with social conservatives earlier this year after initially tweeting her enthusiasm to sign a ban on the participation of transgender girls in female sports leagues before later changing course. Attempts by South Dakota lawmakers to override a partial veto from Noem came up short.
Governors in Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas signed their states' versions of transgender athlete restrictions in recent weeks.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at email@example.com.