Texas Senate gives initial approval to transgender bathroom bill

7:33 p.m Tuesday, July 25, 2017 Texas News & Politics
Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, criticized Senate Bill 3 as discriminatory during Tuesday’s debate at the Capitol. Deborah Cannon / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

After more than eight hours of debate and a series of late-adopted changes, a sharply divided Texas Senate gave initial approval Tuesday to a bill cracking down on transgender-friendly bathroom policies and barring transgender athletes from competing in school sports based on their gender identity.

Senate Bill 3, approved 21-10, would prohibit public schools and local governments from adopting policies that allow people to use multiple-occupancy restrooms and other private facilities that do not match the sex listed on their birth certificate or — in a change added Tuesday — as listed on a driver’s license or Texas handgun license.

A final vote was expected late Tuesday or Wednesday, sending SB 3 to an uncertain future in the House, where Speaker Joe Straus has announced his strong opposition to a measure he sees as unnecessary, harmful to transgender children and risky for the economy.

As the first order of business, the debate over SB 3 dominated the Senate’s day, pushing back action on other special session priorities set by Gov. Greg Abbott as the Senate prepared to work late into the night on a dozen other bills eligible for a vote.

The author of SB 3, Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, said her goal was to create one statewide policy for how public schools and local governments handle access to bathrooms and other intimate facilities.

“This bill would hit what I call the reset button and provide the privacy and safety that Texans expect,” she said.

The bill also makes it clear transgender athletes cannot participate in school sports based on their gender identity. “I don’t believe that it’s right for boys to compete against girls in those UIL events,” Kolkhorst said.

But Democrats blasted the legislation as discriminatory, saying it targets a vulnerable population — particularly transgender children already struggling with bullying and harassment — for further harm.

“The people who will be most effected by Senate Bill 3 are transgender Texans who are simply trying to live their lives and be true to themselves, and this bill does discriminate against them … under the false pretense of protecting the majority from some amorphous threat,” said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin.

“We’re allowing fear to guide public policy and we’re justifying discrimination, marginalizing a vulnerable group,” Watson said.

Watson took particular exception to the bill’s original language, which barred schools and local governments from protecting “a class of persons from discrimination.”

Although replaced by an amendment by Kolkhorst, Watson said the original language “exposes the ugly nature and intent of the bill.”

“I’m thinking about how staggering it is that in 2017 the state Senate has to fix a bill on the floor that expressly allows for discrimination and prohibits the protection of discrimination,” Watson said.

Kolkhorst said the original language did not reflect her intent but was taken from a regular-session House bill that Abbott had praised.

Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, said passage of SB 3 would lead to economic boycotts and dissuade businesses from relocating or expanding in Texas — leading, by some estimates, to $3 billion in annual economic losses to the state.

Kolkhorst repeated earlier statements that she puts “daughters over dollars,” prompting Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, to respond: “Well, I put dignity and diversity over discrimination.”

Democrats also noted that Texas police chiefs, as well as advocates for survivors of sexual assault, have said SB 3 would not improve public safety and seeks to address problems in bathroom behavior that do not exist.

Kolkhorst replied that her bill was not designed to target transgender people, but instead those who would take advantage of gender-neutral facilities, including men who “say today I feel like a female and today I have a right to go into these intimate spaces” used by women.

Senators approved several amendments that made substantive changes to SB 3, including:

• Businesses that lease government buildings and sports arenas can set their own bathroom policies. The same amendment also barred governments from considering a company’s bathroom policies when awarding contracts.

• People with a disability, children under age 8, elderly people and others who need assistance would be exempt from the bill’s bathroom-use restrictions.

• After transgender people testified last week that they could not change the sex listed on their birth certificates, an amendment added driver’s licenses and other government-issued IDs as acceptable documents for gender identification under SB 3.

The bill also would prohibit cities and counties from enforcing anti-discrimination ordinances that require transgender-friendly bathrooms. The Texas attorney general’s office would be charged with enforcing SB 3 by suing school districts and local governments that adopt policies that violate the bill’s restrictions.

It does not apply to colleges or universities, private schools or state agencies, Kolkhorst said.

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