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CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Senate on Thursday passed a bill banning transgender middle school, high school and college girls and women from playing on women’s sports teams.

The legislation (House Bill 3293) now returns to the House of Delegates, which must decide whether to accept or reject the Senate’s changes.

Among the Senate’s amendments was expanding the bill to affect colleges. The House version of the bill affected only middle and high school sports under the supervision of the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission. The SSAC regulates basketball, soccer, cross country and other sports.

The issue is largely supported by conservatives, and despite Republicans holding 23 of the 34 Senate seats, the bill passed only by an 18-15 margin.

Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, was absent, so there were only 10 Democrats present for the vote. All 10 voted no, and they were joined by Republican Sens. Mike Maroney, R-Marshall; Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha; Chandler Swope, R-Mercer; Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha; and Ryan Weld, R-Brooke.

Takubo is the Senate majority leader, and Weld is the Senate majority whip, so two of the four official Senate leaders voted against it. Takubo, Weld and Maroney all expressed concern over the fact that the bill would impact colleges.

An NCAA rule dating back to 2011 allows transgender female athletes to participate on women’s teams, but only after at least a year of testosterone-suppression treatment.

“So it’s a policy of inclusion after that year,” Weld said on the Senate floor Thursday. “This would be a policy that at no point becomes inclusionary at the higher-education levels, so we would be against a policy at the NCAA.”

He said he worried that could mean ramifications for West Virginia college athletes in general.

“I couldn’t take any action here that would potentially put into jeopardy the hard work that our college athletes put into a season because the NCAA, right or wrong, could say to WVU, West Liberty, Fairmont, Marshall, whomever, you’re no longer in the league, you can’t play in the game, or you’re not going to be a tournament host site,” Weld said. “They could. Now, I don’t agree with it, but they could.”

Among the groups opposing the bill are the West Virginia State Medical Association, the West Virginia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the West Virginia Psychological Association and the West Virginia School Psychologists Association.

Democrats raised concerns about discrimination against both transgender students and students who could wrongly be accused of being transgender.

“What effect do you think that would have on a 14-, 15-, 16-year-old girl that might be a tomboy but a hell of an athlete, and an opposing player or parent of an opposing player challenges them, or somebody on the same team challenges them because she’s the star of the club and they want that person off of the club?” asked Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison. “What psychological effect do you think that’ll have on that child, on that poor girl?”

Sen. Mike Caputo, D-Marion, asked, “When’s the last time you sat down and talked to the young people in this state? Are you still campaigning at the McDonald’s, having coffee in the mornings with our wonderful retired folks in our neighborhood, or are you talking to the kids? They want a more inclusive society.”

Sen. William Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, spoke directly to Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley. As president, Blair appointed Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, to lead the Senate Education Committee. Rucker chose to put the bill on that committee’s agenda in the first place.

“I’m surprised this bill is even running,” he said. “I don’t have control over what hits committees, I don’t have control about what hits the floor, but you do, Mr. President. You could stop bills like this if you cared enough to look to the future, if you really wanted 400,000 people to come here.”

Rucker defended the bill, saying it acknowledges that there’s a difference in physical ability between men and women.

“This isn’t against anyone,” she said. “It is for, for the policy of helping our girls, helping our women have the opportunity. That is what Title IX was about.

“It is the best interest of the state to protect women and girls and protect the opportunities for them to participate in sports,” Rucker said. “Supporting this is simply doing that.”

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