By Daniel Trotta
(Reuters) - South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem on Monday urged fellow governors, high-profile athletes and everyday citizens nationwide to join an initiative seeking to bar transgender girls and women from participating in female sports.
Noem, a Republican, announced her "Defend Title IX Now" effort three days after coming under fire from both sides of the political aisle for rejecting a bill that would ban students designated as male at birth from women's and girls' sports.
The governor, who disappointed conservatives in her party by not signing the bill into law, said she agreed with its sentiment but feared it would not withstand legal challenge. She returned it to the legislature to narrow its scope to non-collegiate sports, among other refinements.
Transgender advocates criticized Noem for keeping alive legislation they deem unnecessary, unconstitutional and based on outdated stereotypes, as only a handful of transgender athletes have achieved high levels of success in sports.
Noem is seeking to gain enough pledges of support to stand up to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which previously supported transgender rights by boycotting North Carolina for restricting transgender bathroom access. The NCAA also allows transgender athletes to compete, provided they comply with rules on hormone usage.
She was supported on Monday by former star athletes such as retired National Football League player Herschel Walker, who appeared on video link, and golfer Nancy Lopez, who issued a written statement.
Noem invoked Title IX, the landmark 1972 U.S. law that bans sex discrimination in education and was crucial to the rise of women's and girls' sports in public schools and universities.
"We're here today to talk about fairness in women's sports," said Noem, adding that an athlete's designated gender at the time of birth should be definitive.
The South Dakota legislation was one of 37 bills introduced in 22 statehouses this year that would limit the rights of transgender athletes.
Mississippi's Republican governor signed that state's bill into law on March 11. A similar law passed in Idaho last year has been blocked by a federal court.
Although Noem is pledging to defend Title IX, civil rights lawyers cite the same law as a legal argument against the legislation.
On a similar point of law, the conservative U.S. Supreme Court last year ruled that Title VII of the employment code protects transgender people from discrimination on the basis of sex.
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Bill Berkrot)