Indiana GOP governor faces pushback over trans sports veto

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Editor’s note: This article has been updated.

Indiana’s governor is facing criticism from fellow Republicans and calls for an override of his veto on legislation banning transgender females from competing in girls’ school sports, a decision that puts him at odds with a conservative cause that has led to similar state laws across the country.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb

The bill passed by wide margins in the GOP-dominated Indiana Legislature, and the Indiana House speaker announced plans Tuesday for a May 24 meeting during which it could override Gov. Eric Holcomb’s veto with simple majorities in the House and Senate.

House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, said that the fundamental goal of House Enrolled Act 1041 is to protect girls’ competitive sports.

Speaker Todd Huston

“This issue continues to be in the national spotlight and for good reason as women have worked hard for equal opportunities on the playing field — and that’s exactly what they deserve,” Huston said in a written statement.

A spokesperson for Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, said the Senate will also consider the veto override of HEA 1041 if it passes the House. During this year’s session, the legislation was passed by the Senate 32-18 and by the House 66-30.

Holcomb said in his veto letter Monday that the legislation “falls short” of providing a consistent statewide policy for what he called “fairness in K-12 sports.”

Republican sponsors of the bill said it was needed to protect the integrity of female sports and opportunities for girls to gain college athletic scholarships, but pointed out no instances in the state of girls being outperformed by transgender athletes.

Bill author Rep. Michelle Davis, R-Whiteland, said in a statement that “Hoosier girls deserve better” and that she looks forward to the vote to override Holcomb’s veto.

Rep. Michelle Davis

“Hoosier female athletes deserve the opportunity to win and lose on a level playing field,” Davis said. “Despite being equal, biological males and biological females both possess different genetic strengths and weaknesses.”

Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Braun, who is considering a 2024 run for governor, denounced Holcomb’s veto on Twitter.

“Girls’ sports should be for girls, and allowing biological males to compete with them robs female athletes of a chance to compete and win,” Braun’s post said. “I’m disappointed Governor Holcomb vetoed a bill to make this law in Indiana, and I support a veto override to protect women’s athletics.”

Holcomb’s office didn’t immediately reply Tuesday to requests for additional comment, leaving it unclear whether he would work to convince legislators to uphold his decision.

Eleven other Republican-led states have adopted such laws, which political observers describe as a classic “wedge issue” to motivate conservative supporters, after governors in Iowa and South Dakota signed bans in recent weeks.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem’s hopes for a 2024 Republican presidential run took a hit last year when she killed a bill banning transgender girls and women from competing in school sports that match their gender identity. Noem pushed a ban through the Legislature this year, promoting her proposal with a barrage of TV ads on Fox News that claimed she “never backed down” on the issue.

Other prominent Indiana Republicans called for an override vote, including state Attorney General Todd Rokita, who had a top deputy testify at legislative hearings in support of the bill while Holcomb stayed out of the debate that saw hundreds of opponents attending Statehouse rallies.

“We stand by the law and will vigorously defend it in court if and hopefully when the General Assembly overrides the veto,” Rokita said on Twitter.

The bill’s opponents argued it was a bigoted response to a problem that doesn’t exist, with the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana saying it planned a lawsuit against what it called “hateful legislation.”

Federal judges have halted enforcement of such laws in Idaho and West Virginia, while the U.S. Justice Department has challenged bans in other states as violations of federal law.

Holcomb pointed in his veto letter to the Indiana High School Athletic Association, which has a policy covering transgender students wanting to play sports that match their gender identity and has said it has had no transgender girls finalize a request to play on a girls’ team.

But Holcomb isn’t alone among GOP governors in his veto decision.

North Dakota lawmakers failed last year to override Gov. Doug Burgum’s veto in which he argued that the state had no instances of transgender athletes trying to play on girls’ teams.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox on Tuesday vetoed a similar ban approved by that state’s Legislature after he had been working to broker a compromise between LGBTQ advocates and social conservatives.

Utah lawmakers are set to convene Friday to further consider the bill and discuss overriding the veto, which would require support from two-thirds of legislators.

“I struggle to understand so much of it and the science is conflicting. When in doubt however, I always try to err on the side of kindness, mercy and compassion,” Cox wrote in a letter to Utah legislative leaders.

Holcomb’s veto comes seven years after Indiana faced a national uproar over a religious objections law signed by then-Gov. Mike Pence that opponents maintained could be used to discriminate against gays and lesbians. The Republican-dominated Legislature quickly made revisions blocking its use as a legal defense for refusing to provide services and preventing the law from overriding local ordinances with LGBT protections.

Conservative Republicans, however, lined up against Holcomb.

U.S. Rep. Jim Banks urged state lawmakers to “override the veto and send a message to the rest of the nation that Indiana values women.”

Republican state Rep. Martin Carbaugh of Fort Wayne responded on Twitter to Banks:” Believe me…I will be there to override. You are 100% correct congressman!”

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