BISMARCK — The North Dakota House of Representatives passed a bill Thursday, Feb. 11, that would restrict transgender high school athletes to competing in sports that correspond with their sex assigned at birth.

House Bill 1298 cleared the chamber by a vote of 65-26, after close to an hour of debate between lawmakers over the state's responsibilities to transgender individuals impacted by the legislation.

Lawmakers backing the legislation said its purpose is to preserve fair competition for female athletes — not to target transgender athletes in North Dakota.

"This is about girls competing with girls, ensuring equal opportunity and keeping a level playing field in girls' sports," said Rep. Kathy Skroch, R-Lidgerwood, a co-sponsor on the bill. "It upholds 50 years of progress and protecting women against discrimination and advocates for the preservation of biological standards."

Lawmakers from both parties and LGBT advocacy groups strongly oppose the legislation. The American Civil Liberties Union said the bill is discriminatory, addresses a nonexistent issue in North Dakota and jeopardizes the state's standing with national athletic organizations. Limiting opportunities for transgender athletes could also have damaging mental health consequences, the ACLU said.

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"This bill is thinly veiled prejudice under the guise of protection. This bill is fomenting fear where no problem is present," said Rep. Mary Schneider, D-Fargo. "Kill this bad bill. Let's get out of the way and let our kids play."

The bill passed after lawmakers amended it to apply only to athletes under the age of 18 after opponents warned it could lead to penalties from the NCAA. The NCAA has long allowed its athletes to participate in sports alongside competitors of their identifying gender.

Still, Democratic Minority Leader Josh Boschee argued that the bill would risk North Dakota's relationship with national athletic organizations and leave the state vulnerable to lawsuits.

The bill's backers said it complies with Title IX, the 1972 federal law prohibiting sex-based discrimination in schools and school-related activities. However, Boschee noted that national advocacy organizations have still invoked federal law when targeting similar bills in other states.

"If we pass this legislation, we will be codifying in our state century code discrimination," he said.

One Republican, Rep. Greg Westlind, R-Cando, spoke against the bill on the floor, arguing that it would leave the state open to lawsuits.

Rep. Ben Koppelman, R-West Fargo, introduced the bill. It now goes to the Senate.

Readers can reach Forum News Service reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com.