Gov. Kelly vetoes transgender athletes ban, saying it 'sends a devastating message' to Kansas kids

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed legislation Thursday banning transgender athletes from competing in girls' and women's sports, citing potential effects to the state economy

Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed legislation Thursday that would have banned transgender athletes from competing in girls' and women's sports, calling it "a devastating message" to families in Kansas and a threat to the state's economic standing.

Kelly raised concerns over the impact such legislation would have on the state's economy but also argued in her veto message that Senate Bill 55 would have an impact on the mental health of transgender youth and was counter to Kansas' status as "an inclusive state."

“This legislation sends a devastating message that Kansas is not welcoming to all children and their families, including those who are transgender — who are already at a higher risk of bullying, discrimination, and suicide," Kelly wrote.

The legislation arrived at Kelly's desk after a tense debate in the Kansas Legislature.

More:Revived ban on transgender athletes in women's sports sent to Gov. Laura Kelly after tense debate

Critics have pointed to Kansas State High School Activities Association data suggesting relatively few transgender individuals have attempted to compete in girls' sports in Kansas.

They also have argued it will lead the state into a legal minefield, with a similar law in Idaho ruled unconstitutional by a federal court, pending appeal. The ACLU of Kansas has already vowed a similar lawsuit if lawmakers were to implement the ban in Kansas.

Rep. Stephanie Byers, D-Wichita, the first transgender legislator elected in Kansas history, said Kelly's decision shows trans youths have a high-profile advocate in their corner. She hoped Republican colleagues — some of whom privately told her they opposed the bill, despite later voting "yes" — would follow suit. 

"Not everyone in Kansas is a blockade to being your authentic self," Byers said. "Many of us are opening the door and doing what we can to make sure you are affirmed in every way."

Republicans indicate push to overturn veto

Advocates, meanwhile, have framed the measure as a way of protecting the integrity of girls and women's sports, noting the inherent biological differences between male and female athletes.

The move comes as Republican governors in solidly conservative states have raised concerns about similar proposals, which have swept the nation in response to an order from President Joe Biden's administration prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity, including in interscholastic sports.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum rejected that state's bill Wednesday, following in the footsteps of South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem.

More:'I'm not going to let my kid be a statistic': Kansas bill on transgender girls in holding pattern

Economic considerations have played a key role in those decisions.

Pushback to the bill prompted the National Collegiate Athletic Association to state that "only locations where hosts can commit to providing an environment that is safe, healthy and free of discrimination" will be chosen going forward, a direct response to the bill.

A move to pull NCAA championships from Kansas would have an impact — Wichita has served as a host of the high-profile Division I men's basketball tournament and will do so again in 2025. The city will also host 2022 NCAA Division I women's basketball tournament.

Republican legislators vowed they would not back down in the face of the threats. Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, and Sen. Renee Erickson, R-Wichita, said they "will continue to fight for fairness in women’s sports until this bill becomes law.”

"The Fairness in Women’s Sports Act is as simple as it sounds — it ensures fairness," the legislators said in a statement. "It’s not about anything else other than that, and no state should allow itself to be intimidated by big corporations or the NCAA into pretending otherwise."

But legislators would need one member in the Senate and eight in the House to vote yes on the bill in order to override Kelly's veto.

Conservative activists have vowed to lobby members to support a potential override vote and have said they are optimistic about their chances.

"We are confident that we have a path forward," Brittany Jones, advocacy director for the Family Policy Alliance, said.

Kelly rejects civics test, gun safety requirements in schools

Kelly also rejected a pair of bills mandating students pass a civics test in order to graduate, as well as separate legislation to base gun safety curriculum on the National Rifle Association's Eddie Eagle program.

Both bills have been panned by public school advocates as examples of the legislature meddling in the affairs of the Kansas Board of Education and individual school districts.

"We should let the state Board of Education do that job, not the Legislature," Kelly wrote in her veto message of House Bills 2089 and 2039. "This is legislative overreach."

The civics test would have pulled 60-questions from the test required to become a U.S. citizen. Both the civics test, as well as a provision mandating a financial literacy course for graduation, would be phased in over several years.

The Eddie Eagle bill, meanwhile, would not have mandated gun safety be taught in school.

But if a district was to introduce the programming, they would be required to use Eddie Eagle or a program that has similar aims. Older students would be taught using a curriculum based on the Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism hunter safety course.

More: Opposing 'legislative oversteps,' state education board says all options open if Gov. Laura Kelly signs bills

The Kansas State Board of Education earlier in April had voted to speak with Kelly and implicitly urge her to veto the bills, arguing that the Kansas Constitution gives the state school board the sole authority to set statewide graduation requirements, and local districts the ability to determine local curricula.

Jim Porter, chairman of the 10-member state education board, said the board generally agrees with prioritizing civics and personal finance education, as well as gun safety, but would rather work with, and not against, the legislature in discussing any new policies.

"We want to work with the legislature, and we welcome it, but we appreciate the fact that the governor supported our position that the responsibility for graduation requirements, among other things, are the sole responsibility of the (state) board of education, and the sole responsibility for curriculum is at the local boards of education," Porter said.

He said the board has a good track record of working with legislators to address issues such as dyslexia and bullying from a statewide perspective, and he saw no reason for that not to continue.

"We are not the enemy of the legislature," Porter said. "We want to be cooperative partners with the Legislature, and in many cases, we already have been."

The Capital-Journal's Rafael Garcia contributed to this report.