On June 6, the Pennsylvania Senate passed Senate Bill 1191, which would bar athletes who were male at birth from playing in girls’ sports programs. In a 30-20 vote primarily split along party lines, proponents talked about safety and unfair competition issues, while those opposed framed the bill as an attack against transgender children. The action has left school officials in the state wondering about the implications if the bill becomes law. The Education Group at KingSpry is closely monitoring the proposed legislation.
Below, find a summary of what the bill says, what is currently included in Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association bylaws and some related cases from across the country.
About Senate Bill 1191
Senate Bill 1191, known as the “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act,” states, “Athletic teams or sports designated for females, women or girls … may not be open to students of the male sex.” School districts, charter schools, community colleges and state universities would be required to enforce the restriction. Additionally, the bill requires schools to designate interscholastic, intercollegiate, intramural and club sports as either “Male, men or boys,” “Female, women or girls” or “Coed or mixed.”
Students “deprived of an athletic opportunity” because of a violation can sue the school for damages, including psychological and physical harm and attorney fees, according to the proposal.
The proposal now goes to the House for consideration. Governor Tom Wolf said in a tweet that he would veto the bill if it landed on his desk. A similar bill that passed the House in April, House Bill 972, is also awaiting action.
What PIAA Bylaws Say
Under PIAA bylaws, school principals have the burden of resolving gender-related athletic participation issues. Specifically, a 2014 PIAA policy says students should have an “equal opportunity” when participating in sports, regardless of race, gender or other characteristics and that “where a student’s gender is questioned or uncertain,” the principal has the deciding vote on whether the student can play sports and with whom.
However, there are no standards or guidance at this point, which places Pennsylvania principals in a difficult position. There are more than 1,400 school principals in the state, which means there is the potential for hundreds of different determinations related to sports participation by transgender student-athletes.
Overview of Related Cases
The issue of transgender athletes in school sports became a hot-button issue across the nation when Lia Thomas, a Pennsylvania transgender swimmer, won the NCAA Division I individual national title in March. So far, more than a dozen states have restrictions on the books that bar or limit transgender students from participating in school athletics and many more have introduced bills imposing such limits.
And there are many lawsuits challenging these laws. For example, earlier this month, two anonymous families filed a lawsuit in Utah state court, arguing that bans on transgender athletes violate the state constitution, which ensures that men and women enjoy equal rights. Similar cases have been filed in Idaho, West Virginia and Indiana.
In Florida, a federal judge recently paused a challenge filed on behalf of a transgender middle school student who said the state’s ban on transgender student-athlete participation is unconstitutional and violates Title IX. The federal civil rights law prohibits discrimination based on sex in education programs. Before moving forward, the judge is waiting on a decision by a federal appeals court involving a transgender male student who sued after he was prevented from using the boys’ bathroom at his high school.
Last year, Lambda Legal and several other advocacy groups filed suit in a Tennessee federal court on behalf of a transgender student barred from playing golf on his high school’s boys’ team after the state enacted a law similar to the one lawmakers are proposing in Pennsylvania. The suit names various education officials, including the school district and its director.
Bottom Line for Schools
The only sure thing is that as lawmakers enact policies limiting transgender student-athletes from participating in school sports programs, these policies will continue to face legal challenges. It is too early to say how the courts will rule.
In Pennsylvania, SB 1191 has a few more hurdles to clear before it becomes a law and school officials will no doubt be paying close attention to the outcome. If your school is facing an issue concerning a transgender student and sports participation, you should consult with your solicitor before precluding the student from participating in athletics.