On May 20, with just six legislative days left of the 2016 Oklahoma session, Senator Brian Bingman and Speaker of the House Jeffrey Hickman introduced a bill that would have required a public school to discriminate against transgender students if any one student asserted that his or her religion requires such discrimination. In order for the bill to become law, it would have to pass the House and the Senate by May 27—this Friday. Knowing this, the Senate Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget moved quickly, holding a hearing that very same day and advancing the bill to the Senate floor.
But yesterday, reports from Oklahoma indicated that the bill would not move in the Senate and was dead. This good news was short lived, however, as an hour later reports indicated that the Oklahoma House Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget scheduled a hearing and a vote on SB 1619 for that evening. Ultimately, the vote was a 10-10 tie, meaning the bill did not advance out of committee and is effectively dead for the session.
The bill, would have would have required schools to exclude transgender students from bathrooms if another student claims that sharing a bathroom with a transgender student violates his or her “sincerely held religious beliefs.” And it even forbids schools from adopting single-occupancy facilities. Of course, we believe in religious freedom, but religious freedom does not give students the right to discriminate against transgender students and prohibit them from using the bathroom.
Transgender youth frequently experience threats, bullying, and even physical assaults at school. Eighty-two percent of transgender students say they “feel unsafe at their school”; and a 2009 study shows that 53% of transgender students “have been physically harassed in school in the past year.” That is why the Department of Justice recently released Federal guidance to public schools that provides best practices for protecting students against discrimination and for making schools a safe, welcoming, and supportive learning environment for all students.
SB 1619, in contrast, would have heightened the dangers transgender students already face. Teen suicide rates for these students increase when bathroom access is restricted. And, the very existence of bills like these is harmful to students who are already facing bullying and discrimination, as they further stigmatize transgender students by fostering and legitimizing negative stereotypes and harmful rhetoric aimed at these students.
Representative Dan Fisher, co-author of SB 1619, however, testified that schools need to “accommodate” students with deeply held religious beliefs. But the Establishment Clause of the Constitution prohibits the granting of religious exemptions when they cause harm to or lead to discrimination against other people. And, this bill would lead to mental and physical harm to transgender students.
Fischer, like many members of the committee, also seemed unconcerned with the possible costs and administrative burdens that SB 1619 would have created for school districts. They were fine with the placing schools in a bind, with only three problematic options:
- barring certain students from using the restroom (which is not a real option);
- building a new, second set of bathroom facilities (which would be unrealistic, cost prohibitive, and impossible to complete by the time the bill would go into effect); or
- staggering students’ use of the bathrooms (which would be administratively burdensome, logistically difficult, and humiliating for students—and may not even be an option under the language of this bill).
And, when asked why the bill does not allow the use of a single-occupancy restroom as an acceptable accommodation for these students (which could lift some of these burdens on schools) Rep. Fischer explained that it wouldn’t be fair to single out a religious student with an objection. Yet, it seems that Rep. Fisher had no problem with singling out, targeting, and stigmatizing transgender students.
North Carolina has suffered a blow to its reputation and its economy, as businesses, artists, faith leaders, and members of the public have responded with political and economic pressure, including boycotts, over its law, HB 2. We are glad Oklahoma didn’t make the same mistake.