Veto stands: Transgender pronouns OK in North Dakota schools

April 4, 2023

BISMARCK, N.D.–Teachers in North Dakota can still refer to transgender students by the personal pronouns they use, after lawmakers on Monday failed to override the governor’s veto of a controversial bill to place restrictions on educators.

House lawmakers fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to block the veto, days after Republican Gov. Doug Burgum’s office announced the veto and the Senate overrode it.

The bill would have prohibited public school teachers and employees from acknowledging the personal pronouns a transgender student uses, unless they received permission from the student’s parents as well as a school administrator. It would have also prohibited government agencies from requiring employees to acknowledge the pronouns a transgender colleagues uses.

Republican lawmakers across the U.S. have drafted hundreds of laws this year to push back on LGBTQ+ freedoms, particularly seeking to regulate aspects of transgender people’s lives including gender-affirming health care, bathroom use, athletics and drag performances.

“Ask yourself, does Senate Bill 2231 treat others the way you would want to be treated?” Democratic Rep. Emily O’Brien of Grand Forks said on the House floor, adding that overriding the veto would perpetuate “discrimination, hatred or prejudice.”

Republican Rep. SuAnn Olson of Baldwin said the bill protects freedom of speech for teachers and keeps “inappropriate” topics out of the classroom.

North Dakota will consider other bills this session about transgender students, she said.

Olson said that if lawmakers “are firm on this bill, on girls’ athletics, on separate bathrooms, we will strengthen public schools.” But allowing what she called an “emphasis on sexuality” in schools would cause students and teachers to abandon the public education system.

State representatives voted 56-36 to override the governor’s veto, but 63 votes were required.

All 12 Democrats in the House voted against the bill, as did 24 Republicans. One was Rep. Eric Murphy, of Grand Forks, an associate professor of biomedical sciences at the University of North Dakota.

“I’m tired of these bills. I’m tired of both sides,” Murphy said on the House floor. “If a student wants to be called a different pronoun, does that really matter? Is this earth-shattering?”

In a letter to state lawmakers announcing his veto, the governor (pictured) said, “The teaching profession is challenging enough without the heavy hand of state government forcing teachers to take on the role of pronoun police.” The First Amendment already protects teachers from speaking contrary to their beliefs, and existing law protects the free speech rights of state employees, Burgum added.

Lawmakers who supported the bill have said in debates that it would free teachers from worrying about how to address each student and create a better learning environment.

Opponents said the bill targets transgender students who already have disproportionately high risks of suicide.

In 2021, Burgum vetoed a bill that would have barred transgender girls from playing on girls’ teams in public schools. Lawmakers didn’t override that veto, but they’re considering new legislation this session to replicate and expand that bill — including at the college level.

Last week, President Joe Biden denounced what he called hundreds of hateful and extreme state laws that target transgender kids and their families.

“The bullying, discrimination, and political attacks that trans kids face have exacerbated our national mental health crisis,” Biden said. “These attacks are un-American and must end.”