Gov. Kim Reynolds signed legislation Thursday immediately prohibiting transgender women and girls from competing in female sports offered by Iowa schools, colleges and universities — a new law that legal experts expect to end up in court.
The passage of House File 2416 has drawn a firestorm of criticism from transgender Iowans, LGBTQ advocacy groups, businesses and Democrats who say it discriminates against transgender girls and violates civil rights laws.
Reynolds, a Republican, said the law is “a fairness issue” because of what she said are athletic advantages for transgender girls. Her signature puts Iowa among 10 other Republican-led states that have passed laws restricting transgender athletes in recent years.
At the law’s signing under the Iowa Capitol’s rotunda, Reynolds connected the law to what she called Iowa’s “impressive legacy of advancing women’s equality.”
“Great things happen when women have access to the fair and equal playing field they deserve,” Reynolds said. “But what would it say about a commitment to this principle if we let actual playing fields — the courts, fields, rinks, pools and tracks of youth and collegiate sports — be tilted in favor of biological males with inherent physical advantages?”
Reynolds’ staff said she did not speak with any transgender girls about the legislation before signing it into law.
She spoke Thursday while surrounded by Republican lawmakers and a crowd of girls who participate in school athletics.
In the background of Thursday’s signing, Iowa Safe Schools executive director Becky Smith held up the transgender flag — the same flag that had flown over the Iowa Capitol for a few minutes in 2019 during the Transgender Day of Remembrance.
“It’s really just a reminder that transgender students matter, that they’re here, that they are not going anywhere,” Smith said. “And despite the fact that their rights are being infringed upon by the passage of this bill we stand with them, we have not forgotten them and the fight continues for LGBTQ youth across the state.”
Reynolds’ signature comes the day after the Iowa Senate passed the legislation, sending it to her desk. It takes effect immediately.
Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, called Reynolds’ decision to sign the law “appalling.”
“She is showing once again that she’s more interested in scoring political points than caring about the impact of legislation on some of the most marginalized kids in our society,” he said in a statement.
Potential court battles loom in the law’s future
Legal experts believe Iowa’s law is likely headed for a legal challenge. Over the past two years, such laws in Idaho, West Virginia, Tennessee and Florida have been embroiled in court battles.
Phil Roeder, a spokesperson for Des Moines Public Schools, said Thursday that the district must follow state law but is concerned about potential conflicts with federal law, in particular Title IX, which prohibits schools from discrimination based on their sex. Des Moines Public Schools had opposed the legislation.
Smith said she believes the law does violate Title IX.
“This is going to open up a giant landslide of lawsuits against different school districts across the state when transgender students remember that they have a federal right to protection under the law,” Smith said.
The new state law requires school-sponsored athletic events to be designated as a men’s, women’s or coeducational sport. Athletes competing in women’s sports need to have female listed as the sex on their birth certificate. There is not a similar prohibition for men’s sports in the bill.
The law allows students to sue if they believe they have suffered “direct or indirect harm” based on a school violating the law. The Iowa attorney general’s office will represent schools and school employees in lawsuits, and the state will pay any legal costs.
A report from the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency said the bill could also jeopardize federal funding due to violation of Title IX, the 1972 law that bans discrimination in schools based on sex. The U.S. Department of Education released guidance last year saying transgender students’ rights are protected under Title IX.
The report said it’s unlikely schools would lose federal funds due to precedent, although it can’t predict how the department’s Office of Civil Rights would enforce the law.
Republicans have argued that rather than violate Title IX, the bill would uphold its intent, protecting the competitiveness of women’s sports.
“I’m a mom. I have three daughters. I have three grandchildren who love to participate in sports and I want to make sure that they have every opportunity to participate in a fair environment,” Reynolds said. “And that’s what we were able to do today.”
The Iowa High School Girls Athletic Union has not commented publicly on the new law. The organization’s policies and guidelines had previously said transgender girls could fully compete as females if they consistently identified as a female “at school, home and socially.” But the union has removed that section of its guidelines from its website as of Thursday afternoon.
National groups praise, condemn the law
Reynolds’ signature also drew immediate reaction from national organizations on both sides of the issue.
JoDee Winterhof, the senior vice president of policy and political affairs for the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement that the bill signing was “a shameful moment in Iowa’s history.”
“With the stroke of her pen, and without even bothering to meet with transgender kids or their parents, Gov. Reynolds has reversed years of progress and moved our state backward,” Winterhof said.
Christiana Holcomb, senior counsel with the conservative group Alliance Defending Freedom, praised Iowa for passing the legislation.
“When the law ignores biological reality, female athletes lose medals, podium spots, public recognition and opportunities to compete,” Holcomb said.
A group of more than 150 companies, including Amazon, General Mills, IBM, Microsoft and Nestle have also signed a statement opposing the pending legislation in Iowa and other states, according to a news release from the Human Rights Campaign.