Kansas governor blocks attack on transgender athletes, civics test for high schoolers, NRA curriculum

GOP-led Legislature has opportunity to override vetoes in early May

By: - April 22, 2021 1:29 pm

Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed an attack on transgender children on Thursday, in addition to bills requiring high schoolers pass a civics test and mandating NRA curriculum for public school classes. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly on Thursday vetoed a series of controversial bills that would have banned transgender athletes from school sports, required high schoolers to pass a civics test before graduation, and install NRA-sponsored curriculum in public schools.

The Republican-dominated Legislature is certain to attempt an override of the vetoes when lawmakers return in May, but none of the three bill blocked by the governor passed with a veto-proof two-thirds majority in both chambers.

Kelly said the Legislature’s attack on transgender athletes “sends a devastating message that Kansas is not welcoming to all children and their families.” Senate Bill 55 would limit participation in K-12 and college sports based on an individual’s assigned gender at birth.

“As Kansans, we should be focused on how to include all students in extracurricular activities rather than how to exclude those who may be different than us,” Kelly said. “Kansas is an inclusive state, and our laws should reflect our values. This law does not do that.”

The NCAA indicated it could withdraw basketball tournaments planned for Wichita and Kansas City if the law were enacted. The Democratic governor said the law would harm the state’s ability to attract and retain businesses.

Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, and Sen. Renee Erickson, R-Wichita, responded to the governor’s veto in a joint statement dismissing concerns about discrimination. They said the legislation ensures fairness in sports.

“It’s not about anything else other than that, and no state should allow itself to be intimidated by big corporations or the NCAA into pretending otherwise,” Masterson and Erickson said. “We will continue to fight for fairness in women’s sports until this bill becomes law.”

The transgender athlete bill was written and promoted by anti-LGBTQ organizations and introduced in dozens of states across  the country. Local and national LGBTQ advocates applauded the governor’s veto.

“SB 55 was nothing more than a politically motived bill that seeks to dehumanize transgender Kansans,” said Human Rights Campaign president Alphonso David.

There are five known transgender athletes in Kansas schools.

“Transgender children are not seeking to gain an unfair competitive advantage,” David said. “They are just children who want the opportunity to learn important skills of sportsmanship, competition, and teamwork with their peers.”

The Human Rights Campaign said there were at least 254 anti-LGBTQ bills under consideration in state legislatures across the country. Of those, 124 directly target transgender people and about half would, like Senate Bill 55 in Kansas, ban transgender girls and women from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity.

Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, said he was grateful for Kelly’s veto of a “dangerous” bill that would harm vulnerable transgender children.

“Since she first began serving as a Kansas senator in 2005, she has been a strong and steadfast ally of the LGBTQ community,” Witt said. “Transgender kids across Kansas know they have a champion in the fight for equality and fairness.”

House Bill 2039 would require high schoolers to pass a civics exam and financial literacy class before they could graduate. House Bill 2089 requires gun safety courses taught in grades K-5 to follow curriculum offered by the National Rifle Association if the local school board authorized firearm safety instruction. Under the bill, middle school students would be instructed with the NRA program or a gun safety course through the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. High school students would take the state course.

Kelly said the Kansas Constitution gives the Kansas State Board of Education the authority to set curriculum for public schools.

“This is legislative overreach,” the Democratic governor said. “I encourage the Legislature to work with the State Board of Education to modify curriculum.”

Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, a Democrat from Johnson County, said the trio of bills vetoed by Kelly ranged from the unnecessary to the discriminatory. She also said the Legislature picked up a habit this session of “sticking its nose where it doesn’t belong and creating restrictive laws to address problems that don’t exist.”

U.S. Roger Marshall said it is “un-American to allow biological boys to compete against biological girls in sports.” The legislation actually prohibits transgender girls from competing with cisgender girls. A poll released earlier this month by PBS, NPR and Marist found that 67% of Americans, including 66% of Republicans, oppose the legislation.

The governor’s veto, Marshall said, “is totally out-of-touch with Kansas commonsense, and I encourage the Legislature to override it.”

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.