RALEIGH, N.C. (WGHP) – Two bills to determine who can compete in female sports in North Carolina are lined up against each other in their race to see which chamber can bring home the issue first in the NC General Assembly.

The Senate on Thursday passed Senate Bill 631, less than 24 hours after the House had taken an early lead by passing a similar measure to prohibit transgender athletes from playing on girls’ sports teams in middle school, high school and college or junior college.  

The Senate’s bill only addresses high schools and middle schools, and it applies to religious and charter schools only if they compete under the North Carolina High School Athletic Association.

The vote in the Senate was 29-18, with all but one absent Republican voting for the bill and all but two absent Democrats voting against it.

That differed from House Bill 574, which passed, 73-39, with three Democrats – Garland Pierce (Scotland County), Shelly Willingham (Edgecombe County) and Michael Wray (Halifax County) – joining all Republicans in their support. Tricia Cotham, the representative from Mecklenburg County who recently switched parties, voted for the bill, even though she had been vocal in her support for the LGBTQ+ community.

The bills now move to the other chamber’s Rules Committees and start their paths for reviews by various groups, amendments and floor votes, presumably breaking the tape in some sort of photo finish by a conference committee.

It’s unclear how that compromise might look, but it’s reasonable to expect that Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, would veto whatever it is. Both chambers have supermajorities of Republicans now and could override that veto, as they did recently on the pistol permit bill.

5th District Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-Banner Elk, front, left) joins Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as House Republicans celebrate passage in the House of a bill that would bar federally supported schools and colleges from allowing transgender athletes whose biological sex assigned at birth was male to compete on girls or women’s sports teams. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

It’s also unclear how such a bill might coexist with the measure passed along party lines Thursday in the U.S. Housealthough unlikely to get through the Senate or survive a certain veto by President Joe Biden – to bar women from teams and amend Title IV to define sex “as based solely on a person’s reproductive biology and genetics at birth.” Transgender women would be allowed to practice or train with women’s teams.

5th District Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-Banner Elk) was one of proponents for that bill, but all seven Democrats from NC voted against the bill, including 6th District Rep. Kathy Manning (D-Greensboro).

U.S. Rep. Kathy Manning (D-Greensboro)

“There are so many urgent issues facing students these days – gun violence, the mental health crisis, learning loss, and teacher shortages. Congress should focus on addressing these issues instead of attacking children who are among the most vulnerable and discriminated against,” Manning said in a release. “These kids and their families deal with difficult issues every day, and the rate of trans youth who have seriously considered suicide is over fifty percent.

“Rather than the federal government telling schools which activities this small percentage of kids should be banned from, we should treat everyone with kindness and compassion.  I trust our local schools and teachers to do the right thing – that’s why I’m voting against this harmful bill.”

Rules in place

Both bills in North Carolina are designed to keep individuals who are “biological males” from competing against females because their size and strength would give them an unfair advantage.

Currently such cases are considered as they emerge, and there are two transgender women competing in North Carolina, lawmakers say, and some individuals have been denied under the North Carolina High School Athletic Association’s rules. Each formal application to compete is reviewed by a local Gender Identity Committee.

That’s similar to the policies administered by the NCAA – which mirrors the International Olympic Committee’s long-established policy – and the NAIA. The NJCAA has eligibility rules that are less clear about transgender athletes.

The House’s version also specifies intramural and recreational sports that are organized by the 16 schools that fall under the University of North Carolina System and the state’s 58 community and technical colleges.

“This bill has nothing to do with other bills that are running that have some similar content,” Sen. Kevin Corbin (R-Cherokee), one of its primary sponsors, said in introducing the bill in the Senate. “There are bills all over United States. … This bill has nothing to do with those.

“This bill is about women sports, about fairness in women’s sports and has nothing to do with sexual preference or sexual identity. It keeps biological males from playing girls sports. It’s about fairness.

“I agree what [retired UNC women’s basketball coach] Sylvia Hatchell said the other day. She said, ‘I support trans athletes and their gender identity as they see fit. … Athletics is where sex differences matter.’”

Hatchell had spoken to lawmakers on Wednesday, before the House’s vote, as had NCAA swimming champion Riley Gaines of Kentucky, who had complained about competing against transgender star Lia Thomas, and several other athletes.

It’s about science

State Sen. Joyce Krawiec (R-Forsyth)

State Sen. Joyce Krawiec (R-Forsyth), another sponsor, said that during the pandemic residents were taught to use common sense and to follow the science to stay safe.

“Now we are being told to ignore common sense and ignore the science,” she said.

She cited the origins of Title IX in 1972 to allow women to compete as men had. “A transgender woman is a biological male,” she said. “That’s the science. … Female athletes must be protected.

Dems’ amendments fail

Democrats presented two amendments during debate. State Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Alleghany) moved to table them both, which was approved by the same party-line votes. State Sen. Gladys Robinson (D-Greensboro) was one of the two Democrats who were absent, not that it mattered to the outcome.

State Sen. Natalie Murdock (D-Durham)

Sen. Natalie Murdock (D-Chatham) said the bill “does nothing to make our schools safer or to help our students. … We are waging culture wars with targets on the backs of children. This does not solve real problems we are facing in North Carolina.”

She also talked about what she called “invasive checks and questions” of young girls, and she moved to ban such inspections, to prohibit those who have been convicted of a sex crime for competing or coaching, to ban conversion therapy and to add a mental health program.

Sen. Jay Chaudhuri (D-Wake) talked about how young girls who wanted to play sports might have to “sit down with strangers to talk about menstrual cycle and physical changes and maybe go through inspection. I won’t let that happen to my child. I doubt you would either.”

Sen. Jay Chaudhuri (D-Wake) (NCGA)

He also suggested that passage of such bills could play badly with companies looking at investing in North Carolina, just like the infamous and since repealed House Bill 2 – about bathrooms – had done in 2016.

“This is not HB2,” Hise said. “If you come to North Carolina and you have daughters, we guarantee you are treated fairly.”

Chaudhuri, whose amendment sought to change the focus of the debate and remove the one-size-fits all solution, suggested senators “heed the words” of Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican who had vetoed similar legislation (as did Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb):  “When in doubt, however, I always try to err on the side of kindness, courtesy and compassion.”

State Sen. Amy Galey (R-Burlington)

Said Sen. Amy Galey (R-Alamance) asked Chaudhuri about how kindness would be reflected for the 14% of girls who had been forced to have sex and how rape victims could find themselves sharing locker rooms with biological males.

“What do you say to that young woman … who has a severe discomfort being in the presence of a biological male?” she asked.

Sen. Vickie Sawyer (R-Iredell), who said she played tennis at Wake Forest University, questioned how the situation would be kind to a woman who had “worked twice as hard, twice as long and then to have a championship ripped away because someone ‘feels’ like they are a woman. That is not kindness. That’s the opposite.”

There are polls

Sen. Jim Perry (R-Beaufort) cited research by Pew that showed “17% disagree with this stance. They think it is reasonable that we have women play sports against women,” he said.

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But Pew’s report actually cited that 54% nationally agree that trans athletes should be required to compete on teams that match their gender assigned at birth. Among Republicans, 85% agree, which would be closer to Perry’s figure.

He also cited what he called a recent poll that said 71% of North Carolinians support the views backed by the bill. It’s unclear where that data originated, but a poll conducted in June 2022 by WRAL showed that 50% oppose transgender athletes being allowed to play, which was the second-lowest percentage cited by FiveThirtyEight in a collection of polls.

“I understand that there are sports leagues with rules,” he said, “but we make law. This is commonsense legislation.”