COLUMBIA, Mo. — The GOP-led Missouri House on Wednesday voted to allow local elections over whether to ban transgender girls from competing on K-12 girls' sports teams.
House members voted 89-40 in favor of adding Republican Rep. Chuck Bayse's proposal as an amendment to an elections bill in a late-session attempt to pass the contested legislation before lawmakers' mid-May deadline.
Under the amendment, Bayse said public school boards and administrators could call elections over whether to allow transgender girls to compete on all-girls sports teams.
Bayse said the goal of the measure is "to protect women's sports." He said transgender girls have an unfair advantage against other girls and parents should have a chance to weigh in on the policy.
"This is much more than just focusing on what the left says is discriminatory language," Republican Rep. Nick Schroer said. "This is not discriminatory whatsoever."
House Democrats argued there have not been issues with transgender girls playing on K-12 sports teams in Missouri and cautioned that debating transgender girls' role in sports could push vulnerable children to consider suicide.
Missouri's current public high school sports rules prohibit transgender girls from competing on girls teams unless they're undergoing hormone therapy.
In the past decade since the Missouri State High School Activities Association has had a policy on transgender athlete participation, only two transgender girls have applied to participate on girls' teams, spokesman Jason West said. Both were approved.
Democratic Rep. Ashley Aune said her 12-year-old daughter plays on a co-ed soccer team "and they're fine."
"I'm hearing men telling us that girls want this and (that) they're protecting girls (and) they're protecting women," Aune said. "From what? We couldn't get an answer on that. What are they protecting our girls from?"
The role of transgender athletes in sports is gaining traction as a GOP talking point across the country this election year. Political observers say it's a classic strategy of finding a "wedge issue" that motivates a political base.
House Democratic Minority Leader Crystal Quade said Republicans are supporting Bayse's plan to win primary elections, "not because they believe in this issue."
"We are more worried about our elections and our future than the people we were sent here to serve," Quade said, calling on her colleagues to "do better."
There was some Republican pushback. GOP Rep. Shamed Dogan questioned why the proposal would apply to K-12 student athletes of all ages when he said there's not an issue of physical advantages in pre-pubescent children.
"All of these discussions about fairness and the difference in biology, why would that apply to a kindergartener or a first-grader?" Dogan asked Bayse.
Dogan also said the proposal includes a loophole that would allow schools to classify all sports teams as co-ed, effectively giving schools a way to sidestep bans on transgender girls competing on girls' teams.
The main elections bill needs another vote of approval in the House before it can go to the GOP-led Senate.