Baker relents, says he’d sign the House bathroom bill

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BOSTON – On the eve of a debate in the state House of Representatives on access to public facilities for transgender people, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said Tuesday he would sign a version of the so-called bathroom bill currently before lawmakers in the lower chamber.

“No one should be discriminated against in Massachusetts because of their gender identity,” the governor said in a statement. “After hearing from all sides and carefully reviewing the two separate proposals that have been working their way through the legislature, I believe the House version addresses the concerns that some have with the bill by requiring the Attorney General to issue regulations to protect against people abusing the law. I would sign the House version in its current form should it reach my desk.”

The House version of the bill “supplies the right amount of clarity with respect to the public safety questions that other people have raised,” Baker said, according to the Boston Globe, which first reported on the governor’s decision.

Baker has previously deflected calls to take a position on the contentious issue, which has roiled state houses from California to North Carolina in recent months. Earlier this month, the Obama administration issued a controversial directive mandating access for transgender people to the facilities of their choice and threatening the withdrawal of federal funds to punish those that fail to comply. A dozen states have sued in response.

The House bill, as first reported by the News Service in April, would require Attorney General Maura Healey’s office 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 . . . ”

That language was not included in a similar measure that cleared the styate Senate on May 12 by a 33-4 vote. Key senators viewed the “improper purpose” clause as unnecessary but not objectionable and supporters favored the language as a safeguard against predators who might take advantage of the bill’s bathroom and locker room access provisions that are tied to a person’s self-selected gender identity.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. John Fernandes told the News Service in April that he had not spoken to Baker about the bill, but added: “I think this language is consistent with some of the statements he’s made relative to his thoughts on the bill. He’s wanted to see the language. We think this language should help in his deliberations on this as well.”

Carly Burton, campaign manager of Freedom Massachusetts, has told the News Service that her group is concerned that the “improper purpose” language “puts law abiding members of the transgender community at risk of improper law enforcement even though we know that is not the intention.”

The bill would ensure access to public facilities for transgender people, including public restrooms or locker rooms, including in public schools

Critics have challenged the proposals over the risks they may pose to women and children by exposing them to predators masquerading as transgender persons. Opponents have also cited privacy concerns.

While the Senate bill would have the measure take effect upon passage, the House bill would take hold on Jan. 1, 2017, and states that “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.”