Transgender athletes
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HELENA — House lawmakers voted Monday to advance a bill that would make it more difficult for residents to update the gender on their birth certificates, and rerouted another measure banning girls and women who are transgender from playing on women’s sports teams. 

Senate Bill 280, which requires residents to obtain surgery and a court order before updating the gender on their birth certificate, passed a final vote in the House by a slim margin, with 54 lawmakers supporting the bill and 46 opposed. The bill, carried by Sen. Carl Glimm, R-Columbia Falls, previously cleared the Senate chamber by a similarly tight vote. 

“I think birth certificates are an item of fact,” Glimm said in comments on the Senate floor in early March. “When a person is born, you record where they’re born, you record their weight, you record their sex. And that’s important information to document.”

If signed into law, the bill will reverse a rule that eased the process of amending birth certificates enacted under the administration of former Gov. Steve Bullock, a change Republican lawmakers criticized as a substantial policy change that should have gone through the Legislature. Supporters of Glimm’s measure have also said that heightened requirements will ensure that Montanans do not casually change the gender on their birth certificate — a hypothetical situation that bill opponents argue does not exist.

“What we’re forcing here, if we pass this bill, is for trans folks in this state to have incongruous documents,” said House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, in a floor debate on Friday. “One vital piece of information doesn’t reflect a person’s true self, doesn’t reflect the way they present in their communities, and actually creates a dangerous situation for a lot of trans folks.”

During previous committee hearings, transgender, two-spirit and nonbinary people testified that having a birth certificate that matches their gender identity and outward appearance can help them avoid discrimination, harassment and violence in the workplace and other settings where their identity is checked. Republicans raised concerns about amended birth certificates creating additional confusion about a person’s identity. 

Gov. Greg Gianforte has not yet said whether he supports the bill.

Another bill House lawmakers considered on Monday has been scheduled for further debate after representatives voted down an amendment recently passed by the Senate. House Bill 112, sponsored by Republican John Fuller, R-Kalispell, would prohibit the participation of transgender women and girls on K-12 and collegiate women’s sports teams. Proponents have said that women who were assigned male at birth have an unfair advantage over cisgender female athletes, regardless of age or whether they’re taking medical treatments to lower testosterone levels, as is required by the NCAA. 

The bill, which echoes restrictions and bans on trans athletes proposed in other states, has been criticized as discriminatory and a violation of Title IX, the federal statute banning unequal treatment in school sports, and therefore possibly risking federal funding for public schools and universities. The amendment passed by the Senate would have made the bill void if federal education authorities pledged to take action against the state. 

Lawmakers in the House roundly rejected that change, with Republicans and Democrats voting 97-2 against the amendment. In comments to fellow lawmakers on Monday, Fuller said the alteration lacked clarity and should reference how Title IX violations are currently challenged.

“There is a clear process laid out in Title IX for notification and appeal if the Department of Education feels a state is not in compliance,” Fuller said. “I would like to replace the current amendment with that language.”

The bill will now be sent to a conference committee made up of lawmakers selected by House and Senate leaders for further discussion and alterations. Democrats did not speak against the amendment on the floor but later said it failed to resolve their issues with Fuller’s original bill.

“HB 112 stigmatizes and excludes a group of students who already face high levels of discrimination, period,” Abbott said in a written statement after the vote. “…The Senate amendments didn’t fix anything and we look forward to participating in [the] conference committee.”

The House’s action on Monday came shortly after the NCAA Board of Governors issued a statement in support of transgender athletes, reiterating its policy to hold championship games in “locations where hosts can commit to providing an environment that is safe, healthy and free of discrimination.” The statement bolsters the arguments of HB 112 opponents who say economic fallout from the bill could extend far beyond federal funding by undermining Montana’s ability to host high-profile sporting events. 

The members of the conference committee and the schedule of its meetings were not announced by Monday evening.

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Mara writes about health and human services stories happening in local communities, the Montana statehouse and the court system. She also produces the Shared State podcast in collaboration with MTPR and YPR. Before joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked in podcast and radio production at Slate and WNYC. She was born and raised in Helena, MT and graduated from Seattle University in 2016.