Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at the Utah State Capitol during the weekly COVID-19 press conference in Salt Lake City, Jan. 28, 2021.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said on Thursday that he would not sign a controversial bill being considered by the Utah State Legislature that would ban transgender athletes from playing on girls sports teams in the bill’s current form.

House Bill 302, sponsored by Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, passed through the House on Wednesday on a 50-23 vote. The bill narrowly received a favorable recommendation from the House Education Committee on Feb. 11 with a 8-6 vote.

Supporters of the bill say it would ensure fairness in women’s sports while opponents say it is discriminatory against an already vulnerable and marginalized population.

“Women’s sports matter in Utah,” Birkeland said. “They matter to me, and they matter to every parent of young girls, and they matter to every young athlete trying their best.”

When asked about the bill at a news conference on Thursday, Cox called it “one of the most complicated and difficult bills that we have this session,” adding that “this is an issue that every state and every country is working through right now.”

“Both sides of this issue are actually right,” the governor said, noting that women’s sports have been disadvantaged “for many, many years” but also acknowledging that the bill would be harmful to transgender youth.

“If you have not spent time with transgender youth, then I would encourage you to pause on this issue,” said Cox. “We have so many people that are in a very, very difficult spot right now, and we have very few if any transgender girls that are participating in sports.”

When pressed whether he would sign the bill into law, Cox said he is “not in a place yet where I’m comfortable with the bill as it stands right now.”

But Cox added that he believed Birkeland was “coming from a genuine place of concern” and said he would work with the bill sponsor “to see if we can figure out a Utah way to solve this issue.”

“I’m not willing to give up on figuring out this one. I think there’s still much that we can do to protect women’s sports and also to send a message to trans kids that there’s a place for them and that they belong. And that’s really important to me that they know that,” he said.

“These kids are, they’re just trying to stay alive,” the governor continued, tearing up as he spoke. “There’s a reason none of them are playing sports. And so I just think there’s a better way. And I hope there will be enough grace in our state to find a better solution.”

In a written statement, the Utah Democratic Party called the bill “transphobic and hateful” and said it “will further criminalize the transgender experience by pushing trans Utahns out of sports.”

“This Republican bill will, without question, hurt children in our state, and damage our relations with the LGBTQ community irreparably,” Jeff Merchant, chairman of the Utah Democratic Party, said in the statement.

The group Transgender Education Advocates of Utah opposes the bill and said it “politicizes a non-issue” and “willfully ignores complex biological realities.”

“In my 15 years of advocacy work and almost a decade of working with gender-diverse individuals and their families, I have never seen a time when these young people have been more under attack,” Executive Director Candice Metzler said in a written statement. “The messages being sent to them are damaging on a number of levels.”

H.B. 302 was sent to the Senate Rules Committee on Thursday.

Connor Richards covers government, the environment and south Utah County for the Daily Herald. He can be reached at crichards@heraldextra.com and 801-344-2599.

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