By Marley Parish, Stephen Caruso and Cassie Miller
The Pennsylvania House has passed a veto-bound bill banning transgender women from competing on women’s school sports teams.
The bill, which addresses a top issue for social conservatives in the lead up to the 2022 election, passed the Republican-controlled lower chamber by a vote of 115-84 on Tuesday afternoon. Most Republicans voted yes; most Democrats no, with a handful of defections.
It now heads to the state Senate, although it has little chance of becoming law. Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has already promised to veto the bill, and has never had a veto overridden since taking office in 2015.
The bill, known as the “Protect Women’s Sports Act,” was first introduced last April by state Rep. Barbara Gleim, a Cumberland County Republican, as part of a national wave of similar bills popping up in state legislatures across the country.
Gleim – along with the bill’s fellow sponsors Reps. Martina White, Dawn Keefer, Valerie Gaydos, and Stephanie Borowicz, all of whom are former athletes – claim the legislation will “protect opportunities for women and girls in athletics” and preserve protections afforded to women under Title IX, a 1972 federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in any education program or activity at any federally funded institution.
“Biologically, males and females are different,” Gleim said during Tuesday’s floor debate. “This fact cannot be reversed through surgery or changes in hormones.”
However, the bill’s opponents say it does little to support Title IX and is a “solution in search of a problem.”
“This bill is an ignorant attempt to fix a problem that doesn’t exist,” state Sen. Katie Muth, a Democrat from Montgomery County, co-chair of the LGBTQ+ Caucus, said last month. “If the majority’s intent is to give women a level playing field, we should address the inequities in funding, resources, media coverage and pay in women’s sports.”
The upper chamber has already taken action on a similar proposal. Sens. Judy Ward, a Republican from Blair County, and Kristin Phillips-Hill, a Republican from York County, introduced a companion bill in the Senate less than a week ago. It then advanced out of the Education Committee on Monday on a party-line vote.
Ward, citing parents as the No. 1 group supporting the legislation, maintained that the bill is not about gender. Instead, she argued that the bill is about sex and biological differences.
“Over the past century, we have fought to protect athletic opportunities for female students,” Ward said during Monday’s committee meeting. “And now these opportunities are in jeopardy. Under this legislation, school athletic teams designated for women may not be open to those of the male sex.”
Democrats on the Senate panel voiced opposition to the proposal, with Sen. Lindsey Williams, an Allegheny County Democrat, calling the legislation not just a “bad bill, but one that will actively cause harm to our students.”
Other state lawmakers have questioned whether the decision should be made by the legislature at all, or deferred to the governing bodies of high school and collegiate sports in the commonwealth – the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association and the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
“There are governing bodies over high school and collegiate sports. We are not one of them,” Rep. MaryLouise Isaacson, a Democrat from Philadelphia, told the House Education Committee in March.
A 2014 Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association policy, which governs competitive primary and secondary school sports in the commonwealth, gives an “equal opportunity” to all student-athletes, without regard for race, gender and other characteristics.
The policy, which also allows for co-ed sports, states that “where a student’s gender is questioned or uncertain,” the principal has the final say on if, and with whom, the student can play sports.
In 2020, Idaho became the first state to implement a law barring transgender athletes from participating on women’s sports teams; however, the law has yet to take effect due to pending litigation. Currently, 13 states, excluding Idaho, bar transgender athletes from participating in women’s sports.
In 2021, as many states began to consider legislation that would ban transgender athletes from women’s sports, the Biden administration announced that it would extend federal Title IX protections to LGBTQ students.
Under the new policy, which applies to any K-12 schools, preschools, colleges and universities that receive federal funding, LGBTQ students can bring sex discrimination complaints to the U.S. Department of Education, which oversees and enforces Title IX protections, or to federal courts.
The U.S. Department of Justice has already challenged a handful of state policies that it argues violate federal law.
Overall, the double-barreled votes on the proposal, a top Republican culture war talking point ahead of the 2022 election, raised eyebrows from Democratic lawmakers inside the Capitol, who pointed to the oncoming primary election as a likely culprit for the trans women in sports bill advancing, as well as rumored future votes on such policies as a balanced budget amendment.
“I expect to see, between now and the primary, some very interesting pieces of legislation move … just so folks can go back home and say, ‘Look, see what I've done,’” state Rep. Pam DeLissio, a Philadelphia Democrat, told the Capital-Star. “Most citizens don't know the process well enough to understand that it’s just for a headline or a soundbite.”
House Republican spokesperson Jason Gottesman scoffed at the notion, calling it a “tired assertion.”
The “bold ideas” in the House GOP agenda, from limiting government to fiscal responsibility, Gottesman, said, “is not dictated by anything in the political world” but by a desire to do things in the best interest of Pennsylvanians.
Marley Parish, Stephen Caruso and Cassie Miller are reporters for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story first appeared.