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Missouri Senate committee hears ‘bathroom bill’ for K-12 public schools

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Updated at 2:15 p.m. Feb. 23 — The debate over which bathrooms transgender students can use has come to Missouri.

A Missouri Senate committee heard testimony Tuesday on Senate Bill 98, which would require students at K-12 public schools throughout the state to use restrooms, locker rooms and shower facilities that correspond to their "biological sex."

But on Thursday, GOP legislative leaders said it should be up to schools to decide how to handle transgender student bathroom access. The Associated Press reported that House Speaker Todd Richardson said local school boards are in a better position to tackle such questions. 

Original story from Feb. 21:

Tuesday's hearing featured two transgender children, ages 11 and 13, who told the Senate Committee on Education that they don't want to harm anyone, but instead use the restroom and wash their hands like everyone else.

Elizabeth Fuchs is a manager and lobbyist for the LGBT rights group Missouri PROMO. She said the bill puts transgender students at an increased risk for harassment, bullying and physical violence.

"All students deserve a safe school environment and forcing transgender students into restrooms that don't match their gender identity puts their safety at risk," she said.

But the bill sponsor, Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar, argued that the bill is an acknowledgment and a respect for transgender students' existence, saying it would protect the privacy and safety of all students and give guidelines to school boards.

"I've talked to superintendents who acknowledge that they have students in their schools that would fit into these categories," he said, "and they're not exactly sure what they should be doing to accommodate them."

Emery's bill would also require alternate facilities be made available for transgender students.

North Carolina was the first to adopt a so-called "bathroom bill" last year, and Texas lawmakers are considering one this session. But both of those affect all publicly owned places and all people regardless of age.

Biological sex in the bill is defined by “the physical condition of being male or female, which is determined by a person’s chromosomes, and is identified at birth by a person’s anatomy and indicated on their birth certificate.”

Supporters say the bill is needed to promote the safety and comfort of all students. But opponents argue the measure is discriminatory and could violate a transgender student’s right to privacy.

Emery sponsored an identical bill last year that never got a hearing.

A different bill in 2016 that was viewed as an attack on the LGBT community made it further. The Missouri Senate passed what was commonly known as SJR 39, which would exempt clergy and small business owners from lawsuit liability for not catering to same-sex weddings. It died when a House committee failed to pass it on a tie vote.

Krissy Lane contributed to this report.

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:@MarshallGReport

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.