North Dakota’s reviled anti-trans sports ban killed off – but more attacks on LGBT+ students are incoming

North Dakota governor Doug Burgum at a press conference February 2017 

North Dakota governor Doug Burgum vetoed an anti-trans sports ban, but signed a “free speech” bill that critics warn allows for discrimination against LGBT+ students.

On Wednesday (21 April), Burgum vetoed proposed legislation that would have banned trans K-12 students from playing on school-sponsored teams that align with their gender identity.

The Dickinson Press reported House Bill 1298 passed the state’s House by a 69-25 vote, and a more narrow 27-20 vote in the Senate. Now, the bill requires a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate to override Burgum’s veto. This would be possible in the House, based on the previous voting pattern, but appears unlikely in the North Dakota Senate.

Burgum said there is no evidence in North Dakota supporting the often-cited argument that “fairness” in girls’ and women’s sport is endangered by allowing trans people to play on teams that align with the gender.

“North Dakota today has a level playing field and fairness in girls’ sports,” Burgum said. “We have every confidence that they will continue to ensure a level playing field for the 27,000 students who participate in North Dakota high school sports.”

But Libby Skarin, campaigns director for the ACLU of North Dakota, said HB 1298 was “never about levelling the playing field for student-athletes”. Instead, she argued: “It was obvious from the beginning that this discriminatory legislation was about creating solutions to problems that don’t exist and, in the process, harming some of the most vulnerable people in our state.

“Nobody wins when politicians try to meddle in people’s lives like this. Nobody wins when we try to codify discrimination like this.”

However, this victory for trans rights comes days after Burgum signed into law House Bill 1503, which would effectively allow student groups at colleges and universities to discriminate against LGBT+ students.

Supporters of the bill said it is intended to prevent the infringement of First Amendment rights across the 11 North Dakota public colleges. HB 1503 will forbid campuses from limiting unpopular or offensive opinions to selected “free speech zones” on school grounds. The bill also stated that campuses can’t refuse funding to a student group based on its viewpoint or prohibit guest speakers based on their views or content of the speech, according to CBS-affiliate KX News.

But the law is odd considering that Lisa Johnson, the vice-chancellor of academic/student affairs for the North Dakota University System, told KX News that there have been “no reports of violations of First Amendment rights, freedom of speech, at any of our institutions for the last 12 years”.

But the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) said in a statement that HB 1503 would allow student organisations in North Dakota “to discriminate against LGBTQ students under the guise of free speech”. HRC’s president Alphonso David called Burgum’s decision to “sign this discriminatory bill” “shameful” because it “undermines non-discrimination policies at colleges, universities and high schools across the state”.

“This law is nothing more than a harmful attempt by governor Doug Burgum and North Dakota legislators to discriminate against LGBTQ and other marginalised communities,” David said. “No student should be denied full access to and enjoyment of educational, social and leadership opportunities typically offered by colleges and universities because of who they are.”

According to KX News, the bill will officially take effect on 1 August. It previously passed in the North Dakota House by a 65-29 vote, and a 35-12 vote in the Senate.