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County leader sues New York over an order to rescind his ban on transgender female athletes

MINEOLA, N.Y. (AP) — A Republican official has asked a federal court to affirm his decision to ban girls’ and women’s sports teams with transgender athletes from using county facilities in New York City’s suburbs.

Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman filed the lawsuit days after the state's Democratic attorney general, Letitia James, warned him in a “cease and desist” letter that the ban clearly violated New York's anti-discrimination laws.

In filing the lawsuit, Blakeman doubled down on an executive order he signed on Feb. 22 that covers more than 100 sites in the densely populated county next to New York City, including ballfields, basketball and tennis courts, swimming pools and ice rinks.

The order requires any teams, leagues or organizations seeking a permit from the county’s parks and recreation department to “expressly designate” whether they are for male, female or coed athletes.

Any teams designated as “female” would be denied permits if they allow transgender athletes to participate, the order said. The ban doesn't apply to men's teams with transgender athletes.

During a news conference Wednesday, Blakeman said the intent of the ban is to protect the “right to equal opportunities in athletics” to those assigned female at birth, as well as their “right to a safe playing field.” He said girls and women in contact sports might get injured if they are forced to compete against transgender women.

“The reason why we set forth this policy was because of the unfair competitive advantage that males have. They’re bigger, faster and stronger. It’s a scientific fact," Blakeman said, as he was joined by a local 16-year-old volleyball player and her parents, who are also plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Proponents and opponents of restrictions on transgender athletes point to a limited number of studies to support their viewpoints. Supporters of restrictions also often assert that the participation of transgender women encroaches on the space that the federal law known as Title IX carved out for cisgender women and girls.

James’ office on Wednesday echoed earlier statements calling the order “transphobic and discriminatory.”

On Friday, James threatened legal action if Blakeman didn’t rescind the order in a week. Among other things, she said it would subject women’s and girls sports teams to “intrusive and invasive questioning.”

The executive order followed scores of bills enacted in Republican-governed states over the past few years banning gender-affirming medical care for transgender minors, barring transgender girls and women from girls and women’s sports teams, banning drag performances, and other similar measures.

Blakeman said no teams or organizations have yet applied for a permit under the new order as licensing for seasonal sporting events is just ramping up. He also said he is not aware of any local teams trying to field transgender athletes in female sports.

In any case, Blakeman argued, the order does not outright ban transgender individuals from participating in any sports at county facilities, as transgender female athletes will still be able to play on male or co-ed teams.

“Transgender athletes have many avenues to compete,” he said. “So we're not precluding anyone. We're not denying anybody.”

Nassau's county-run facilities include the more than 900-acre Eisenhower Park that is home to the training facility for the NHL’s New York Islanders as well as an Aquatic Center that has regularly hosted the swimming and diving championships for the NCAA’s Big East Conference.

Islanders officials didn’t respond to messages seeking comment Wednesday. But Big East spokesperson John Paquette said the conference has made no decision about its future plans despite having held its finals at the East Meadow venue six of the last nine years.

The Big East’s policies for transgender athletes, he added, follow those of the NCAA, which, in turn, are based on the policies of the national or international governing bodies of each individual sport.

LGBTQ groups, meanwhile, are skeptical of the legal arguments put forward in Blakeman’s lawsuit.

Time and again, federal judges have found blanket bans on transgender athletes likely violate the very same equal protection clause Blakeman invokes, said Sarah Warbelow, a vice president at the Human Rights Campaign.

Among the recent examples are judicial rulings in lawsuits challenging transgender restrictions imposed in Idaho and West Virginia, the organization said.

David Kilmnick, president of the LGBT Network, a Long Island-based advocacy group, said the 14th Amendment has also come into play in transgender workplace discrimination cases, including that of Vandy Beth Glenn, who was fired from her job with the Georgia General Assembly after announcing she intended to transition from male to female.

“Courts have recognized that discrimination against transgender individuals often constitutes discrimination based on sex, which is prohibited by the 14th Amendment,” he said. “These rulings have affirmed that transgender individuals are entitled to the same legal protections against discrimination as everyone else.” ___

Associated Press reporter Michael Hill in Albany, New York contributed to this story.

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Follow Philip Marcelo at twitter.com/philmarcelo.