CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia's governor signed a bill Wednesday that bans transgender athletes from competing in female sports in middle and high schools and colleges.
The bill was among 38 signed by Republican Gov. Jim Justice. It had narrowly passed the state Senate, which had added the college component, before being overwhelmingly approved in the House of Delegates.
Justice said earlier this week that he would "proudly" sign the bill despite warnings from some lawmakers that the NCAA could retaliate and decide not to hold college tournaments in the state.
Last month, hundreds of college athletes signed a letter to the NCAA Board of Governors asking the organization to refuse to schedule championships in states that have banned transgender athlete participation in sports.
The NCAA in 2016 moved championships out of North Carolina in response to a bill legislating transgender people's use of public restrooms.
"It concerns me that we may miss out on a really important sporting event or something like that that could come to West Virginia," Justice said. "However, I think the benefits of it way outweigh the bad part of it."
Bills seeking to ban transgender girls from competing on girls' sports teams in public schools also have been enacted this year in Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi, while South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem has implemented the move by executive order.
"We regret the governor has signed this cruel and unlawful bill after refusing to meet with young transgender West Virginians and their family members," the American Civil Liberties Union's West Virginia chapter said. It added in its statement: "ACLU-WV stands ready to intervene whenever and wherever this harmful law is enforced."
Andrew Schneider, executive director of Fairness West Virginia, an LGBTQ advocacy group, said Wednesday that "transgender children are worthy of love and support. They deserve the chance to learn and grow in the classroom and on the field."
A 2017 study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA law school used state-level, population-based surveys to estimate that West Virginia had the highest percentage (1.04%) of residents ages 13 to 17 among all states who identified as transgender. That equated to about 1,150 teens.
During a debate in the House of Delegates, Republican John Mandt defended the bill. He said it could drive residents to move into the state, a comment ridiculed by Democrat Cody Thompson, an openly gay man.
"This isn't going to bring people to West Virginia," Thompson said. "This just sends a message across the country that we're closed-minded and we don't accept you for who you are."
Several Democrats said the bill was discriminatory, while some Republicans said the bill was about ensuring an equal playing field for biologically female athletes. Supporters have argued that transgender athletes would have physical advantages in female sports.
The West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission has not received any complaints about transgender athletes on girls' teams. SSAC Executive Director Bernie Dolan has said the SSAC is unaware of openly transgender students participating in scholastic sports currently or in the past.