Business leaders in Oklahoma’s two largest communities were scared to death their state would become another North Carolina and be ostracized by those who support LGBT rights if legislation granting a religious pass for those who didn’t want to share locker rooms or bathrooms with the transgendered had been approved.
Troy Stevenson, the executive director of an LGBT-rights group, Freedom Oklahoma, warned there was no doubt in his mind that the legislation was an example of “horrific North Carolina-style discrimination.”
“Our community is under attack, and we are fighting back. We won marriage last year, and in retaliation,” Stevenson wrote on the Freedom Oklahoma website, “a tiny handful of lawmakers have lashed out at us with an unprecedented amount of discriminatory legislation.”
KFOR-TV reported Mark VanLandingham, vice president of government relations and policy at the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, wrote in a letter to the chamber’s members that “we simply can’t afford it.”
”We could send a very negative message to the world that we’re not open for business if we’re closed-minded with how we deal with discrimination issues,” VanLandingham warned.
State Sen. Brian Bingman (R) said the Tulsa Regional and the Greater Oklahoma City chambers of commerce were making a mistake by pigeon-holing Senate Bill 1619 as being all about infringing on the rights of transgendered students.
Senate President Pro Tempore Bingman said the bill he sponsored was actually an attempt to regain local control of schools, while at the same time protecting the religious freedoms of students who didn’t want to use bathrooms or locker rooms with transgendered students.
He stressed that SB 1619 was not intended to tell school districts how they should handle the tricky question of bathrooms and locker rooms for transgendered students.
“This measure is about doing what’s best for all students in Oklahoma schools by ensuring schools that make the decision to accommodate transgender students regarding showers and locker room facilities also accommodate students who would object to those arrangements because of their deeply held religious beliefs,” Bingman said.
However, SB 1619 did come down on one side of the argument that has defined the squabble over transgendered rights as much as the debate over when life begins has impacted the abortion controversy.
Bingman said the legislation established a person’s sex as “the physical condition of being male or female, as identified at birth by that individual’s anatomy.”
Given that sex organs make the man or woman, the bill states that if a school district allows a member of the opposite sex to use a bathroom and athletic facilities for the opposite sex, it must provide a religious accommodation for students or their parents who object to the policy.
The accommodation would apply to restrooms, changing facilities, or showers. Providing access to a single-occupancy restroom, shower, or changing facility will not be allowed.
The bill also allowed the attorney general to represent school districts or employees in legal challenges to any federal regulation or mandate that requires a district to implement a policy allowing members of the opposite sex to use a bathroom for the opposite sex.
It would be a mistake to say there was GOP solidarity on this.
Republican Sen. David Holt couldn’t believe he and his colleagues were spending time in the final days of May debating whether students should get a pass to avoid using restrooms frequented by their transgendered classmates based on religion.
With only days to go before their end of the legislative session, with lawmakers facing what he called “a budget crisis unprecedented in state history,” Holt said he was “ashamed” to say they were talking about who should get to use which bathroom.
“People are literally marching in the streets, asking that their classrooms be held harmless, asking that their teachers not be fired, asking that their art programs stay current, asking that their schooling not be cut short,” Holt told The Oklahoman.
But proponents of Senate Bill 1619 said it was a debate worth having.
However, it was not the only response to the federal Department of Education’s “Dear Colleague” letter that strongly suggested local school systems let transgendered students use either the boys’ or girls’ bathroom – wherever they felt most comfortable.
Companion legislation called on Oklahoma’s congressional delegation to push for the impeachment of President Obama. That failed to come up for a vote.
Still, Sen. Anthony Sykes (R) said his constituents wanted to push back against the Obama administration, and that is exactly what he and Bingman did with SB 1619.
“This is about allowing a religious accommodation,” Sen. Sykes said. “The federal government not only wants to tell us what to do in education, in our schools but in our bathrooms, locker rooms, and changing rooms.”
An Oklahoma Senate committee approved SB 1619. But less than a week later the bill failed by the slimmest of margins — a 10-10 vote — in the House Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget.
Even though his proposal failed to make it to Gov. Mary Fallin’s desk, Sen. Bingman hopes the larger point about keeping Washington out of Oklahoma’s business has been achieved.
“The U.S. Constitution grants no power or authority to the executive branch of the federal government over the public school system in Oklahoma,” Bingman said. “The ‘guidance’ letter sent to public schools is an attempt by the administration to subvert the system of checks and balances in order to serve the president’s political agenda.”