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Do transgender women and girls have a constitutional right to play on women's sports teams? That question will be argued before a U.S. appeals court today. The landmark case stems from an Idaho law passed last year, the first in the nation. That law never went into effect because a federal judge issued an injunction. As NPR's Melissa Block reports, the Idaho case carries national ramifications.
MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: The Idaho law is called the Fairness in Women's Sports Act, but to Lindsay Hecox, it's anything but fair.
LINDSAY HECOX: I'm just a 20-year-old girl, and I just want to be able to compete.
BLOCK: Hecox runs track and cross-country and is transgender. Before transitioning, she competed on boys' teams in high school. Now at Boise State, after hormone replacement therapy to suppress testosterone, she hopes to make the women's team. But if Idaho's law is upheld, that can't happen, so she stepped forward to challenge it.
HECOX: Because it was just so blatantly wrong for politicians to legislate this.
BLOCK: The message Hecox would like to send to the appeals court judges hearing the case today?
HECOX: It would be to think about us as real people. I think trans people can be such a bogeyman sometimes.
BLOCK: On the other side is Madison Kenyon, who runs track and cross-country at Idaho State.
MADISON KENYON: To step on the field and have it not be fair and to get beat by someone who has advantages that you'll never have, no matter how hard you train, it's so frustrating.
BLOCK: Kenyon raced several times against a transgender woman athlete named June Eastwood, from neighboring Montana. Kenyon finished pretty far back in the pack, so it's not like Eastwood bumped her off the podium. Still, she says...
KENYON: What I'm fighting for is to preserve the integrity in women's sports and to make sure that it's a fair playing field.
BLOCK: Kenyon is represented in the Idaho case by the conservative Christian advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom, where Christiana Holcomb is legal counsel. Holcomb frames the Idaho law in the context of Title IX, the landmark 1972 law that prohibits sex discrimination in education.
CHRISTIANA HOLCOMB: We've had women's sports as a separate category for nearly 50 years and have had no issues being able to determine who and what a woman is. So we want to ensure that we protect women based on their sex so that they have those opportunities Title IX was designed to provide them.
BLOCK: Idaho's law is sweeping. It would categorically bar transgender women and girls, from kindergarten through college, from competing on teams that align with their gender identity, which means it's more restrictive than policies of the NCAA and the International Olympic Committee. Those elite sports bodies do allow transgender women to compete on women's teams if they've met certain criteria in suppressing their testosterone levels. Also, under Idaho's law, female athletes, whether transgender or not, could be required to prove their biological sex. That's just one component of the law that lawyer Chase Strangio with the American Civil Liberties Union finds appalling.
CHASE STRANGIO: It imposes upon all women and girls the threat of intrusive and burdensome sex verification and dispute procedures that simply cannot be squared with the Constitution.
BLOCK: The Idaho bill was sponsored by Republican State Representative Barbara Ehardt, working in tandem with the Alliance Defending Freedom. After it passed, Ehardt testified before other states' legislatures in favor of similar bills. This year, 33 states introduced trans sports ban legislation with language that closely mirrors Idaho's. So far, five governors have signed them into law. For Ehardt, that's clear validation.
BARBARA EHARDT: I've been pleased to see how many other states this year have followed and many of them using the exact legislation or maybe slight deviations of what we did here in Idaho.
BLOCK: With such an uneven landscape emerging around the country, parties on both sides promise more legal challenges to come. Political science professor Jami Taylor at the University of Toledo is among many who expect this question will ultimately be resolved by the courts.
JAMI TAYLOR: It's not unusual for morality politics-related policies to just spread across the country like wildfire, and we've seen that to some extent. The question is how long the courts are going to allow us to have this sort of patchwork in the states.
BLOCK: The hearing today before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will be one step along that judicial path.
Melissa Block, NPR News.
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