By Austen Hartke 2-22-2016

Last week the South Dakota Senate passed HB 1008 — a piece of legislation that, if approved by Gov. Dennis Daugaard, will make it nearly impossible for transgender students in public schools to safely use the restroom.

The bill essentially requires that transgender students use restrooms and locker room facilities that match their assigned sex at birth, rather than the facilities consistent with the gender identity that they live out in their day-to-day life. For transgender youth, many of whom already face bullying and physical violence, this proposed law could be catastrophic.

Though there has not yet been a shred of evidence to suggest that transgender people pose any threat to others in the bathroom, legislators all over the country continue to attempt to pass these “bathroom bills.” In reality, it’s transgender people who risk verbal, emotional, and physical harassment every time they enter a gendered facility. A 2013 study by the Williams Institute found that 70 percent of the transgender people who participated had experienced some sort of harassment or negative reaction when trying to use the restroom.

Imagine being a transgender girl in South Dakota once HB 1008 has been signed into law. It’s just after lunch at your high school, and you’d love to take a quick bathroom break before class, but then you stop and think — which bathroom can you use? Can you walk into the girl’s bathroom, like you usually do, and take a second to touch up your makeup, or will you be suspended, or even arrested? Or do you take your summer dress and shoulder-length hair into the boy’s bathroom — completely out of place, but within the confines of the law — and risk getting laughed at or beaten up?

Being forced into this kind of decision is exactly the kind of thing that contributes to the high rates of anxiety in transgender populations.

Thankfully, clergy members in South Dakota are standing up for the youngest in their congregations, and many have taken a stand against HB 1008, calling for Gov. Daugaard to veto the bill. Rev. Jean Morrow was one of the pastors who made the three hour drive to South Dakota’s capitol last week, representing her United Church of Christ church in Sioux Falls.

“This discriminatory bill marginalizes and isolates a very small, voiceless group — trans children, youth, and their families,” she said, in an interview with me days later.

“I immediately felt like our state government was adding to the pile-on of bullies that our transgender community already fears to face.”

Rev. Morrow was not alone in her fear for the transgender members of her community — she was joined by pastors and leaders from Unitarian Universalist, Disciples of Christ, and United Methodist churches in the area. Additionally, Bishop David Zellmer, head of the South Dakota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has also made a statement calling Gov. Duagaard to veto the bill.

Bishop Zellmer’s call is heartfelt, urging Gov. Duagaard to treat the transgender students of South Dakota as his neighbors:

“We are called to love and protect our neighbor in need. Let us stand in their corner rather than against them. These are the children of our own families, congregations, and communities. Let our love for them lead us to take action for their protection.”

Unfortunately, not all church leaders have come out in opposition to the measures proposed in HB 1008. Both Roman Catholic bishops of South Dakota, Rev. Robert D. Gruss and Rev. Paul J. Swain, have issued a statement supporting the bill on the grounds that “access to facilities based on the gender of birth protects all students and preserves our religious liberty and upholds our protected freedom of conscience.”

Though the bishops may have their hearts in the right place by attempting to protect all students, the fact is that by advocating for HB 1008, they are leaving the transgender students in South Dakota out in the cold.

Many South Dakota residents like Rev. Morrow feel that this bill is unnecessary.

“Bathrooms have been and can be handled at the local level with teachers, students, families and school administrators,” she said, pointing out that the state has been handling any complaints successfully on a case-by-case basis.

“To my knowledge, there is no situation that the legislature is addressing, which means this bill is over-reaching.”

And indeed, if the intention of the legislation is to preserve freedom and promote religious liberty, then the legislators should take the objections of Rev. Morrow and her fellow clergy seriously.

For those of us who live outside South Dakota, these issues may seem too far-removed to touch our lives in a meaningful way. But in the Bible we find that our neighbors continue to be our neighbors, regardless of how far away they live. As Christians, we are called to love and work for the good of our neighbor, and as followers of Jesus we are called to protect the most vulnerable. Surely there must be a way to ensure the safety of all of the children in South Dakota’s school system, and not just the majority.

After all, the Good Shepherd, whom we attempt to emulate, has promised to never leave even one sheep behind. How can we seek to do less?

Austen Hartke is a writer, speaker, and creator of the YouTube series “Transgender and Christian,” which seeks to understand and share parts of the Bible that relate to gender identity and the lives of transgender individuals. Austen is a graduate of Luther Seminary’s Master of Arts program in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible Studies, and is the winner of the 2010 John Milton Prize in Old Testament Writing from the same institution.

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