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Oklahoma Senate Committee Passes Transgender Restroom Bill

A new sticker designates a gender neutral bathroom at Nathan Hale high school Tuesday, May 17, 2016, in Seattle.
Elaine Thompson
/
Associated Press
A new sticker designates a gender neutral bathroom at Nathan Hale High School Tuesday, May 17, 2016, in Seattle.

Legislation that would allow students with “deeply held religious beliefs” to use separate restrooms than their transgender peers passed through the Oklahoma Senate’s Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget on Friday.

Under the measure, a student, parent or legal guardian would need to approach their school board and request the accommodation. No standard would have to be met to recognize the sincerely held religious belief.

Senate Bill 1619 was a reaction to a “Dear Colleague” letter sent by the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education that explained how to protect the civil rights of transgender students and allow students to use the restroom for the gender they identify with.

State Sen. Gary Stanislawski, R-Tulsa, said the bill carves an exception for people with deeply held religious beliefs who would prefer to not share a restroom with someone who does not identify with the gender he or she was born with.

“I think it’s very clear if the Department of Justice is going to be heavy-handed with the Department of Education and say, ‘If you don’t follow this, we are going to withhold Title IX funds,’” Stanislawski said. “In the state of Oklahoma, there are residents who don’t appreciate what they have just done, and they want to make sure that there are equal ... opportunity for those who may have a religious objection. I just want to make sure it’s clear that they too can be treated fairly.”

During nearly two-and-a-half hours of committee questioning and debate, several Senators requested Stanislawski lay over the legislation due to vague language. State Sen. Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City,  pressed Stanislawski about the basic mechanics - if both a transgender student and a student with a religious exemption want to use the same bathroom at the same time, who gets to go?

“I would suggest it would probably be at a different time frame from those students who want the religious accommodation,” Stanislawski said. “They won’t all be there at the exact same time. But they will work something out with different timing and take care of their business. I’m not directing one or the other to use a specific facility.”

The legislation, filed on Thursday, comes just one week before the legislature adjourns and at a time that Oklahoma is grappling with a $1.3 billion shortfall.

State Sen. Dan Newberry, R-Tulsa, recognized the importance of filling the state’s budget hole, but he would not let a budget crisis back him down from supporting the bill.

“The opportunity before us in this bill affords a protection to a high school student, a high school girl - I have three daughters - to go to school and be able to use the restroom, go to the shower or go on a band trip and not have to worry about the boy who then all of a sudden decided he wanted to change his gender three hours before the band trip,” Newberry said.     

State Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, said the bill’s timing is “tragically wrong.” Students are marching in the streets, he said, asking that education funding be held harmless, requesting that teachers not be fired, and that school weeks not be shortened.

“That we have spent an entire day, with just five days left in the session, dealing with this and not putting the brain power of this body into the budget situation makes me feel ashamed,” Holt said.

State Sen. Corey Brooks, R-Washington, argued the bill’s language is too vague and does not account for parents and students who do not have strong religious beliefs but who nevertheless may not want their children sharing a restroom or shower with a transgender student.

“I am sick and tired of passing things that we know are going to be overturned in the courts just to do something,” Brooks said, who mentioned he is drafting similar transgender bathroom legislation that will take his concerns into account.

A related Senate continuing resolution requests that members of Oklahoma’s U.S. House delegation file articles of impeachment against President Barack Obama, the U.S. Attorney General and the U.S. Secretary of Education, “based upon the grounds that the Constitution of the United States does not grant the executive branch of the federal government any authority whatsoever over the public education system, nor over the use of restrooms or other facilities thereof.” 

KGOU is a community-supported news organization and relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online, or by contacting our Membership department.

Jacob McCleland spent nine years as a reporter and host at public radio station KRCU in Cape Girardeau, Mo. His stories have appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered, Here & Now, Harvest Public Media and PRI’s The World. Jacob has reported on floods, disappearing languages, crop duster pilots, anvil shooters, Manuel Noriega, mule jumps and more.
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