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South Dakota 'Fairness in Women's Sports' bill becomes law in Gov. Noem's first act of new year

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South Dakota Republican Gov. Kristi Noem on Thursday signed the "Fairness in Women's Sports" bill into law, enacting what social conservatives have called the "strongest" protections for women's sports in the nation. The new law prohibits any student at a state school from joining a sports team that does not match his or her biological sex.

After signing the bill, Noem said the law was needed to protect "fairness" in athletic competition.

“This is about fairness. Every young woman deserves an equal playing field where she can achieve success, but common sense tells us that males have an unfair physical advantage over females in athletic competition. It is for those reasons that only girls should be competing in girls’ sports,” the governor said in a statement. “Women have fought long and hard for equal athletic opportunities, and South Dakota will defend them, but we have to do it in a smart way.”

The law states that "only female athletes, based on their biological sex, shall participate in any team, sport, or athletic event designated as being for females, women, or girls." It also defines "biological sex" as "the sex listed on the student's official birth certificate issued at or near the time of the athlete’s birth."

Individual athletes may file private lawsuits against any school or institutions that do not comply with the new statutory requirements. The law also instructs the state attorney general to "provide legal representation at no cost to that entity or individual" who files a lawsuit against schools for noncompliance.

"This is a statute in the state of South Dakota that will ensure that girls sports [are] protected," Noem told reporters.

A previous version of this law was opposed by the governor for containing provisions she said were "unrealistic in the context of collegiate sports." The governor issued a "style and form" revision of the legislation last March, sending it back to the legislature with changes. Republican lawmakers rejected Noem's changes and she ultimately vetoed that bill, provoking harsh rebuke from social conservative groups.

But the bill the bill that became law this week was strongly praised by those same groups, who applauded Noem for fighting for this law.

“Gov. Noem and South Dakota legislators deserve a great deal of credit for passing this strong legislation, despite some hiccups last year. We thank them for standing up for equal opportunities for their state’s women and girl athletes, and we urge lawmakers in states without such protections to get to work on passing them immediately,” American Principles Project president Terry Schilling said.

Alliance Defending Freedom legal counsel Christiana Holcomb said, “Girls deserve equal opportunities to experience the thrill of victory. We welcome South Dakota to the growing number of states that are ensuring their female athletes won’t be spectators in their own sports. When schools and society ignore biological differences between the sexes, it’s girls and women who pay the price. In athletics, girls are losing medals, podium spots, public recognition, and opportunities to compete."

"We commend the legislature and governor for supporting this important legislation, which ensures that female athletes from kindergarten to college will not face those losses in South Dakota,” Holcomb added.

Left-wing groups condemned the new law.

"This cruel and dangerous bill is part of a coordinated attack on trans youth moving nationwide," the American Civil Liberties Union tweeted.

Susan Williams, executive director of the Transformation Project, told the Argus Leader that Thursday was a dark day for transgender youth in South Dakota.

"Today, we are devastated that one of these bills is being signed into law," she said. "We know trans youth across this state and country are hurting at this news. We want every trans person watching to know that we are with you, we see you, and we are here for you."

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