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Citing states’ rights, Utah won’t comply with Title IX rules protecting transgender students

By Kyle Dunphey - Utah News Dispatch | Jun 20, 2024

Alixel Cabrera, Utah News Dispatch

Transgender rights advocates protest at the Utah State Capitol on Wednesday, June 19, 2024, ahead of a House vote to not comply with a new Title XI rules that offer protection against discrimination based on students’ gender identity.

During a special legislative session on Juneteenth, Utah lawmakers declared they will not comply with new Title IX requirements set to take effect in August, passing a pair of resolutions Wednesday evening that they say allow the state to disregard the federal directive.

Under the resolutions, state employees are instructed not to follow Title IX requirements that extend protections to transgender students, allowing them to play on sports teams and use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity — instead, state laws that bar transgender people from those spaces in schools and government-run facilities will override those federal directives.

For much of Wednesday evening, the Senate and House debated the resolutions at length.

Republicans, by and large, framed the Title IX rules as federal overreach from unelected bureaucrats that risked nullifying existing Utah laws protecting women’s sports. Democrats warned that not complying with Title IX could jeopardize federal funding, while arguing the resolutions targeted transgender students, an already marginalized group.

As House members took to the floor, a crowd of about 100 people gathered outside of the chamber, their chants of “trans rights are human rights” echoing through the Capitol building. Draped with the blue and pink transgender flag and holding signs that read “stop the war on trans people” and “protect trans kids,” the protesters held an impromptu fashion show before they dispersed around 4:30 p.m.

Alixel Cabrera, Utah News Dispatch

Transgender rights advocates protest outside the House chamber at the Utah State Capitol on Wednesday, June 19, 2024, ahead of a House vote to not comply with a new Title XI rules that offer protection against discrimination based on students’ gender identity.

The resolutions come on the heels of a legal challenge to the new Title IX requirements, filed in May by Utah and four other GOP-led states. Meanwhile, a federal judge in Kentucky this week sided with Republican attorneys general in six states that filed a similar lawsuit, saying in his ruling that “sex” and “gender identity” are not the same thing.

The Title IX rules in question were announced in April by the U.S. Department of Education, peeling back changes made by former President Donald Trump and former Education Secretary Betsey DeVos that set a new, narrow definition of sexual harassment and changed how schools handle sexual harrassment or assault allegations. Now, under the Biden administration, Title IX protections will include gender identity and sexual orientation.

The protections are at odds with HB257, which restricts transgender people from using the locker room and bathroom that aligns with their gender identity.

In addition, lawmakers say the new Title IX rules conflict with three other existing state laws:

  • HB11, which restricts transgender students from joining school sports teams that align with their gender identity.
  • Utah laws that “protect students’ from harassment and preserve students’ rights to free expression and due process.”
  • And Utah laws regarding abortion, “which generally forbid the use of public funds for abortion services.”

Until the court rules on Utah’s lawsuit, the state will not comply with those Title IX provisions, a process made possible by the Utah Constitutional Sovereignty Act.

That law, which Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed in January, gives the state an avenue to not comply with federal directives as long as the legislature passes a concurrent resolution, which requires buy-in from both the Senate president and speaker of the House, and support from a two-thirds majority in both bodies. The governor also must sign the resolution.

That’s the process that played out, in part, on Wednesday, with the House voting along party lines and the Senate voting in a similar fashion to pass HJR301, sponsored by R. Neil Walter, R-St-George, and HCR301, sponsored by Kera Birkland, R-Mountain Green.

HCR301 will require Cox’s signature.

Those resolutions declare that the “federal government’s overreach in regard to the new regulations adopted under Title IX” infringe on the state’s sovereignty, while prohibiting a government employee from “enforcing or assisting in the enforcement” of the new rules.

“This is a very simple, simple resolution,” said Birkland, speaking to HCR301 during a Business and Labor Interim Committee meeting on Wednesday. “It just compels and tells the government entities to follow state law. We don’t want anyone to be confused.”

Birkland added she doesn’t want people using Title IX “as an excuse to ignore the state law because they don’t like the state law.”

In the Senate, Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, was the lone Republican “no” vote, opposing the bill out of concern it could lead the federal government to pull funding for Utah schools.

“This very seriously places in jeopardy $696 million that the federal government provides for nutrition programs, for Title I, for career and technical education and especially for special education,” Thatcher said.

For the rest of the Republicans, in both the House and Senate, the effort to keep transgender students out of girl’s sports superseded any concern about federal funds.

“As a woman, I’m standing in support of other women, my daughter and future girls of this state and country that understand that yes, this protection exists for you. There is a place for you in sports,” said Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, on the House floor. “No one is trying to target teenagers or individuals. The bills that we’re addressing had privacy plans in place and a compassionate approach.”

Democrats took issue with that sentiment, asking why the legislature felt the need to continually pass laws around transgender Utahns.

“My frustration is that it already feels that you already won this war against a very small group of people in an already marginalized community,” Sen. Jen Plumb, D-Salt Lake City, said on the Senate floor, calling the legislature’s approach “confusing, frustrating and saddening.”

“This feels like rubbing salt in the wound,” she said.

Choosing to go against the federal government before a court ruling is relatively new territory. During a media availability on Wednesday with House Speaker Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, both politicians say they feel confident about their approach.

“As we push back on the federal government, we think that we’re within our state’s rights,” Adams said.

“We’re on pretty solid legal ground,” added Schultz. “The overreach from the Biden administration and federal government has gotten out of control. Federalism is the way forward.”

Adams acknowledged that ignoring the Biden administration could result in Utah schools losing federal funds, telling reporters he’s “always concerned about risk, but we’re also concerned about kids.”

“We’ve got lots of money that we can put in reserve,” Adams said.

Utah News Dispatch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news source covering government, policy and the issues most impacting the lives of Utahns.

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