Nebraska lawmakers to debate a bill on transgender students' access to bathrooms and sports teams

FILE - Nebraska state Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh speaks to reporters, Thursday, March 18, 2024, in Lincoln, Neb. A bill to limit transgender students access to bathrooms and sports teams has been advanced out of committee with just days to go until the end of the session. Cavanaugh says she will filibuster bills not yet passed if Omaha Sen. Kathleen Kauth's bathroom and sports bill advances. Speaker of the Legislature Sen. John Arch announced late Thursday, April 4, 2024, that the bill would be debated the next day for no more than four hours. (AP Photo/Margery Beck, File) (Margery Beck, Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Last year objections to a Nebraska bill that sought to ban gender-affirming care for anyone under age 19 ground the work of the Legislature to a near standstill. This year supporters of a companion bill restricting transgender students’ access to bathrooms and sports teams waited until the end of the session to advance it for debate, to avoid a repeat.

But it still has the potential to upend dozens of bills that have yet to pass, with only five days left in the legislative session.

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“I wanted this session to go better than last year,” said Omaha Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, a Democrat in the state's officially nonpartisan Legislature. “I refuse to let this happen without a cost. And that cost is time. Period.”

It was Cavanaugh who led an epic filibuster of nearly every bill before the body — even ones she supported — in an effort to tank the 2023 measure, which was amended to ban gender-affirming surgery for minors and place heavy restrictions on gender-affirming medications and hormones for minors. It eventually passed after a 12-week abortion ban was attached to it, and was signed by the governor. A lawsuit challenging the hybrid law is currently winding through the courts.

Its companion, Legislative Bill 575, introduced as the Sports and Spaces Act by Republican Sen. Kathleen Kauth, was stalled for more than a year before it was voted out of committee Thursday. It would restrict students to bathrooms, locker rooms and sports teams that correspond with the gender they were assigned at birth.

Kauth, who was the author of the gender-affirming restrictions passed last year, named LB575 as her priority for this session, despite Cavanaugh's promise to filibuster bills again if it is brought up for debate.

Kauth received a boost earlier this week when the state's Republican attorney general issued an opinion saying the bill does not violate the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.

“We find no evidence that LB575 has been introduced to single out and harm transgender students as opposed to protect the privacy of students and protect female athletic opportunity,” Attorney General Mike Hilgers wrote in the opinion.

Cavanaugh accused her Republican counterparts of continually pushing wedge issue bills and flip-flopping on whether government should stay out of people's private lives or act as a nanny state.

“If you agree with parents, then parents know best. If you disagree with parents, then you know best,” she said. “You all were fighting for local control this morning, and you want to take it away from schools this afternoon.”

In a Pew Research Center poll released in February, 41% of public K-12 teachers surveyed said the national debate over what schools are teaching related to sexual orientation, gender identity and race has had a negative impact on their ability to do their job. Also, 71% of teachers said they don’t have enough influence over what’s taught in public schools in their area, while 58% said their state government has too much influence.

Sen. John Arch, speaker of the Nebraska Legislature, announced late Thursday that Kauth's bill would be debated Friday afternoon for no more than four hours. Normally legislative rules allow for eight hours of debate in the first of three rounds that a bill must survive to pass. But Arch said earlier this year that he would use his privilege as Speaker to cut that in half for any bills he deems to be social wedge issues.

Cavanaugh said she's ready.

“Get ready to hear my recipes, my movie synopses and on and on,” she said. “Until 575 is dead, that's what we're going to be doing.”

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