NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee will soon decide whether to sign off on adding harsh penalties against public schools in his state that allow transgender athletes to participate in girls’ sports.
The GOP-controlled Legislature finished advancing the proposal Monday, with Senate Republicans approving the measure 26-5. The House had previously approved the bill last month.
Lee, a Republican, hasn’t said publicly whether he supports the legislation. However, he signed a measure last year mandating that student athletes must prove their sex matches that listed on the student’s “original” birth certificate. If a birth certificate was unavailable, then the parents must provide another form of evidence “indicating the student’s sex at the time of birth.”
This year, lawmakers decided to add penalties to that ban — which is in effect even as a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality makes it way through court. A trial has been tentatively set for March 2023.
“What this bill does is put teeth in that legislation,” said Republican Sen. Joey Hensley.
Under the legislation headed to Lee’s desk, Tennessee’s Department of Education would withhold a portion of a state funds from local school districts that fail to determine a student’s gender for participation in middle or high school sports. The measure does not specify exactly how much money should be withheld by the state.
To date, none of the Tennessee supporters backing a transgender athlete ban in K-12 schools have cited a single instance of transgender girls or boys in middle or high school sports. A 2021 review by The Associated Press found only a few instances nationwide in which it has been an issue among the hundreds of thousands of American teens who play high school sports.
“This is legislation that has led to conflict and litigation. I don’t think this is the time or place for us to go down this road,” said Democratic Sen. Jeff Yarbro. “There is no indication this is problem in Tennessee schools but there are kids who feel targeted by this legislature and these are often kids who are struggling with a lot and more likely to be at risk of committing suicide more than anyone else.”
Separately, the Republican-supermajority Senate approved legislation banning transgender athletes from participating in female college sports. Similar to the K-12 transgender athlete ban, sponsors said they weren’t aware of any current conflicts in Tennessee but pointed to instances of transgender athletes gaining attention elsewhere. The proposal still awaits House consideration.