PIERRE, S.D. -- South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem on Monday killed a bill that would have banned transgender women and girls from female sports, then later issued weaker executive orders that include restrictions but which conservatives decried as political face-saving.
Lawmakers in more than 20 states have introduced similar bans this year, with Republican governors in three states — Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi — signing them into law. A federal court blocked a similar law in Idaho last year.
Noem's partial veto of the bill riled GOP lawmakers and tarnished the Republican governor’s status among social conservatives. Shortly after the bill died, the governor, who has emerged as a prominent national figure in the GOP, issued two executive orders for a ban, but Republican lawmakers said the orders amounted to little more than an effort to salvage her reputation with conservatives.
The bill's sponsor, Republican Rep. Rhonda Milstead, said Noem's orders were “a weak message” made after she has fallen from favor with conservatives who have taken up the issue. Milstead had pushed the issue in South Dakota, arguing that athletes who are born male are naturally stronger, faster and bigger than those born female. The bill had included enforcement mechanisms and required schools to annually gather documentation of athletes' sex at birth.
Transgender advocates said efforts to bar transgender girls and women from sports deprive transgender children of a chance to belong to a sports team when they need all the support they can get. They have also noted that most transgender athletes don't hold a significant competitive advantage over their peers.
“Transgender kids belong in South Dakota, and they belong in sports,” said Susan Williams, who heads an advocacy organization called the Transformation Project. “It's beyond time for elected officials in South Dakota to stop these unnecessary yearly attacks on transgender people.”
Even though the high school activities association has said there are currently no transgender students playing in girls' sports, Noem ordered that all girls who want to play in girls' sports leagues in public schools have to present a birth certificate or affidavit showing they were born female. A second order applied to public universities in the state, but amounted to a recommendation they enact bans. The governor also promised to call lawmakers back into session in the coming months to take up the matter.
“Only girls should play girls’ sports," Noem said in a statement, adding that she was issuing the orders because the Legislature had rejected her partial veto of the bill.
After initially saying she was excited to sign the bill this month, Noem has found herself caught in a political mess, facing tough lobbying from business interests, legal threats and talk of betrayal from social conservatives who had been reassured she was on their side.
Noem has been denigrated by conservatives for issuing a partial veto against the bill passed by the Legislature on March 8. The partial veto struck two sections from the bill and limited it to high school and elementary sports. She had argued the bill amounted to a “participation trophy" because applying the ban to collegiate athletics would result in lawsuits and the NCAA pulling tournaments from the state.
Business groups have said that if the NCAA withdrew tournaments it would cost the state millions of dollars and up to 100 full- and part-time jobs.
The governor's use of a “style and form” veto — usually reserved for cleaning up technical language — also had lawmakers arguing she was overstepping the constitutional bounds of her office. The House on Monday rejected her style and form veto and instead attempted to override it as an outright veto. The bill died after failing to get the two-thirds vote necessary to overcome a veto.
Democrat Rep. Erin Healy lauded the bill's failure, saying it would have “discriminated against a whole group of people who are already vulnerable.”