Republican Gov. Bill Haslam worries that public schools in Tennessee could lose federal funding if lawmakers pass a bill to ban transgender students from school restrooms that correspond with their gender identity, a spokesperson for Haslam told BuzzFeed News.
"The governor does have financial concerns over the loss of Title IX funding," Jennifer Donnals, the press secretary for Haslam, told BuzzFeed News in reference to a 1972 federal law that bans discrimination on the basis of sex in public schools.
Under Obama, the Education Department has interpreted that law to also ban anti-transgender discrimination.
"Currently in Tennessee, this issue is being handled on a local basis, situation by situation," Donnals continued, responding to a question from BuzzFeed News about whether the bill could clash with federal policy. "The governor trusts our teachers and local school boards to make necessary accommodations in those situations."
Tennessee legislators are scheduled to consider the bill in a house subcommittee next week.
Although still its nascent stages, it is notable as the first bill of its type to advance since South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard vetoed a similar measure in February. Explaining his veto, Daugaard told lawmakers he feared it could expose the state to federal lawsuits.
National Republicans and conservative groups have placed a priority this year on state legislatures passing bills to restrict restroom access for transgender students — as a backlash to the Obama administration.
But both governors Haslam and Dauggard are Republicans, and their resistance to these bills may show unwillingness to tangle with federal lawyers over transgender student rights.
An unprecedented two-dozen anti-transgender bills have been filed in state legislatures this year — but to date, no state has ever enacted a law to ban transgender students from school restrooms.
Tennessee's House Bill 2414 states: “Public schools shall require that a student use student restroom and locker room facilities that are assigned for use by persons of the same sex as the sex indicated on the student’s original birth certificate.”
The House Education Administration and Planning Subcommittee is scheduled to hear the bill on March 15.
The bill does not mention transgender people specifically, but it is the latest step in a conservative effort nationwide to ban transgender people from using restrooms that reflect their gender identity. Campaigns have united around a battle cry of banning “men in women’s bathrooms” to push such policies — and to block LGBT nondiscrimination laws — arguing that they are protecting women and girls from sex predators.
“Letting boys into girls’ restrooms and changing areas, for example, is an invasion of privacy and a threat to student safety," said a statement from Matt Sharp, legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, which promotes such bills.
In January, the Republican National Committee approved a resolution encouraging states to pass bills like the ones in Tennessee and as a backlash to the Obama administration's "overreach" on transgender student rights.
Under President Obama, federal agencies have interpreted Title IX of the Education Act of 1972 — which bans discrimination in publicly funded schools on the basis of sex — to also ban transgender discrimination as a form of sex discrimination.
The Department of Education has pushed several school districts into compliance when local officials attempted to deny transgender students access to school restrooms. In courts — again citing Title IX — the Justice Department has supported a transgender student in the lawsuit over student restroom access that has proceeded the furthest in court.
Heeding that precedent, South Dakota's Gov. Daugaard vetoed the bill in his state, arguing it would put "every school district in the difficult position of following state law while knowing it openly invites federal litigation."
LGBT advocacy groups and businesses have opposed the bills.
Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee, told BuzzFeed News in a statement, "This legislation calls for one group of students to be treated
differently from others, which is discrimination, pure and simple."
"Codifying such discrimination into law serves only to have a devastating impact
on young people who are already under tremendous stress and at greater risk of
bullying," she said.
Rep. Susan Lynn, the sponsor of the Tennessee bill, did not respond to BuzzFeed News' requests for comment.