Mass. lawmakers hit pause on ‘Bathroom Bill’ ahead of Senate action

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BOSTON – Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said Monday he “appreciated” the changes made to the House version of the controversial “bathroom bill” unveiled Friday, while Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat, said he was still reviewing the additional language, which gives the attorney general a role in dealing with assertions of gender identity for “an improper purpose.”

Speaker Robert DeLeo said he supports the revised bill but would wait to take action in the House of Representatives until after the Senate debates its version of the measure, which doesn’t have the revisions, and a vote on May 12. The joint Committee on the Judiciary voted to recommend both versions to the full legislature on Friday.

Critics such as the Massachusetts Family Institute say the changes fall short of assuaging their concerns for the privacy and safety of women and girls in public restrooms and locker rooms, should the revised bill become law. Both versions would expand on a 2011 statute that bans discrimination against transgender people in the workplace and in housing to add guarantees of access to sex-segregated public facilities based on “gender identity” rather than anatomy. The redrafted bill would let the state attorney general provide related “guidance or regulations” to law enforcement.

“This version of the bill is essentially the same, as it still offers no protections to women and children who don’t want to be eyed by or exposed to naked men in locker rooms or other intimate spaces,” Jonathan Alexandre, legal counsel for the institute, told the Associated Press on Friday.

The news service said Alexandre objected to giving Attorney General Maura Healey regulatory powers, saying Healey, a Democrat and an outspoken supporter of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, has been dismissive of objections from the bill’s opponents. Healey, a Boston resident who was the first openly gay woman to be elected attorney general, has strongly supported the original measure.

“I’d honestly like to know how she plans to keep my daughters safe if this bill she is supporting is passed,” Andrew Beckwith, the family institute’s president, said in a statement posted on the organization’s website Friday, referring to Healey. “I hope the governor will have the good sense, and the courage, to veto it should it come to that.”

Meanwhile, the main group pushing for passage has largely gone silent.

“We are really pleased with the developments made on this bill. We do have some questions about the redraft, and we look forward to working through those in the next few weeks with lawmakers,” Freedom Massachusetts said in a statement on Friday. Spokesman Matt Wilder declined to elaborate, saying activists want to talk to legislators first.

While Baker has declined to specify any elements that might give him pause, the Republican said Monday he “appreciated the clarity that was provided by the bill that came out on the House side.”

“But obviously this is an important issue and as we’ve said before, we’ll look forward to reviewing whatever makes it through the process and gets to our desk,” Baker said.

Speaking with reporters after meeting with Baker and Rosenberg for nearly two hours Monday, DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat, said that he fully supports the revised version pending in the House, but would wait until after the Senate debate to decide how to proceed.

“We’ll wait until we see what happens in the Senate. Then, we’ll decide accordingly,” DeLeo said.

Rosenberg said Senate Democrats will discuss the two versions of the bill during their private caucus on Wednesday in anticipation of a vote a week from Thursday.

“We’re reviewing the language,” Rosenberg said when asked about the House redraft, later adding, “We have 40 members of the Senate and each of their opinions is very important and I want to hear them all.”

Marking a potential breakthrough on the issue, the Judiciary Committee on Friday backed a Senate bill and a redrafted House bill designed to ensure public facilities access for transgender people and give businesses clear guidance to implement the measure, should it become law.

The House version would take effect Jan. 1 and states “any public accommodation including without limitation any entity that offers the provision of goods, services, or access to the public that lawfully segregates or separates access to such public accommodation or other entity based on a person’s sex shall grant all persons admission to and the full enjoyment of such public accommodation or other entity consistent with the person’s gender identity.”

The measure directs the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination to adopt regulations or formulate policies and make recommendations “to effectuate the purposes of this act.”

It would also require the attorney general to “issue guidance or regulations for referring to the appropriate law enforcement agency or other authority for legal action any person who asserts gender identity for an improper purpose . . . ”

“I think it is responsible language and I think it is intended to protect transgender people from harassment and give guidance to businesses. It’s language I’m open to,” said Sen. William Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat and the Senate chair of the Judiciary Committee.

Asked if he would consider adding the same language into the Senate bill, Brownsberger said, “I’m certainly open to it.”