Alaska Senate committee advances transgender sports bill for K-12 students

Key legislators in the House say they’ll block the bill if it comes before them
The Alaska Senate has advanced a bill to limit how transgender girls participate in sports. Key House legislators say they will block it if it comes before them
Published: May. 2, 2022 at 7:24 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - The Alaska Senate Judiciary Committee has advanced legislation that would require transgender girls to participate in sports according to their biological sex at birth. Transgender girls could also play in coeducational teams.

The bill would also have applied to University of Alaska students until it was amended on Monday.

University President Pat Pitney, who won an Olympic gold medal in 1984, explained that as a former athlete, she personally has concerns about the fairness of transgender women competing against biological females. But, there are broader issues at play, and she says her personal opinions are “irrelevant.”

President Joe Biden is expected to issue new guidance that transgender women would be covered under Title IX as they were under former President Barack Obama.

The University of Alaska submitted documents to the Legislature, saying because of that, it is unclear what the financial impacts would be if transgender women were limited from participating in female sports in Alaska. But the university could miss out on significant federal funding, Pitney suggested.

The university also noted that the National Collegiate Athletics Association might not allow post-season sports competitions from taking place in Alaska and the state of California might prohibit teams from competing with the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“That means, UAF would have over half of the non-conference home games opportunities taken away in a sports environment where it is already a challenge for Alaska teams to get home games,” the letter from the university reads.

The Senate Judiciary Committee amended the bill to exclude it from applying to Alaska college students, but the university’s Board of Regents could still adopt their own policies. The bill’s provisions would now apply solely to K-12 students.

If Senate Bill 140 passes through the Senate in the final days of the legislative session, which is not certain, key lawmakers in the House of Representatives say they will block it from passing onto Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s desk.

The Senate committee advanced the bill on Monday over constitutional concerns. Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, who has supported the bill for close to two years, said this is not an anti-trans bill but a way to preserve girls’ sports.

“As it is an issue that is occurring more and more, it’s important that Alaska sets the policy now,” she said.

NBC reported in late March that 11 Republican-led states have passed bills in the past two years that limit how transgender girls compete in school sports. SB 140, known as the “Even Playing Field Act,” has proven divisive in Alaska. Senate committees have received dozens of comments for and against the bill.

A group of Alaska coaches and former student athletes testified in support of it, arguing that biological males have an inherent physical advantage over biological females. And that this bill is critical for future generations of Alaskans.

“We want everyone to have the opportunity to compete in sports and have access to a fair playing field,” the joint letter reads. “Competing in sports teaches valuable life lessons and gives kids and young adults confidence, discipline, and perseverance.”

The Association of Alaska School Boards argued the bill could have “catastrophic effects” for school districts across the state by jeopardizing federal funding and increasing the chances for litigation by impacted students.

Lon Garrison, executive director of the AASB, also said the organization has not been able to find evidence in Alaska of high school “female sports being affected, much less dominated, by transgender athletes.

“The anecdotal examples cited lack credibility and seemed to be created by fear and rumor rather than factual occurrences,” he added in a letter to the Legislature.

Six years ago, a transgender student from Haines did compete in high school athletics competitions, but Hughes said that to her knowledge, no Alaska transgender athletes are currently competing in female sports. She said this bill is about preserving Title IX’s accomplishments for the future.

The governor took to social media in late March with similar concerns on the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the landmark civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on sex in education programs.

“This is not about exclusion,” Dunleavy said. “This is about protecting the gains women have made.”

Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, was the Senate Judiciary Committee’s lone “no” vote on Monday. He said the bill is “in search of a problem to solve” and he raised some constitutional questions about its provisions.

Marie Marx, one of the Legislature’s attorneys, wrote a memorandum that was requested by Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, on the constitutionality of the bill. There were questions about equal protection issues as transgender boys could still play on boys sports teams.

Marx argued the bill could run afoul of the state constitution’s privacy clause.

“It is highly likely that, if SB 140 were enacted into law and challenged, a court would find that SB 140 unlawfully discriminates against transgender females in violation of the equal protection clause of the Alaska Constitution,” she added.

Kenneth Jacobus, a long-time Alaska attorney, issued his own memorandum, arguing that many of the constitutional issues raised have not been heard in court. He said the bill is simply about “the right of women to compete fairly in athletic activities.

“The Legislature should not be deterred from passing SB 140 to protect female sports because there might be unanswered constitutional questions,” he said on Monday.

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