RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Attorneys for a high school French teacher who was fired after he refused to use pronouns for a transgender student argued Friday in the Virginia Supreme Court that the school violated his constitutional rights to free speech and practice his religion. The school’s attorney said the teacher violated the school’s anti-discrimination policy.
Peter Vlaming sued the school board and administration at West Point High School after he was fired in 2018. Vlaming appealed the lower court’s dismissal of the lawsuit and asked the Supreme Court to reinstate it.
The lawsuit against Vlaming was brought by Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian human rights group that has filed six similar lawsuits — three in Virginia and one each in Ohio, Kansas and Indiana.
ADF barrister Christopher Chandewell told the High Court that Vlaming was fired not for what he said but “for what he could not say”.
“This is a case of forced speech,” he said.
Chandevel told the judges that Vlaming tried to please the student by using his first name in the masculine gender and avoiding the use of pronouns, but the student, his parents and the school told him he had to use the student’s male pronouns.
In his lawsuit, Vlaming said he could not use the student’s pronouns because of his “sincerely held religious and philosophical” beliefs “that each person’s gender is biologically fixed and cannot be changed.” Vlaming also said he would be lying if he used the student’s pronouns.
Justice Thomas Mann rejected the argument that using the boy’s new name, but not his pronouns, would allow the teacher to avoid discriminating against him.
“What’s the difference?” he said.
“So why is (Vlaming’s) right not to lie more important than (the student’s) right to a basic education and not to be discriminated against,” Mann said.
Alan Schoenfeld, an attorney representing the school board and school administrators, said Vlaming’s speech was part of his official teaching duties and that his refusal to use the student’s pronouns clearly violated the anti-discrimination policy.
“A public school employee has no right to say they will not follow school policy,” he said.
Judge Wesley Russell Jr. said if Vlaming treated all students the same by using their names, “how does that discriminate?”
Schoenfeld said it’s “inevitable” that pronouns will come into play in the classroom. Once, Vlaming accidentally called a student “her” in class, but immediately apologized.
After the hearing, Vlaming said he hoped he and the school board could come to an agreement.
“I can disagree with my students without provoking my students. I’m there to teach French,” he said.
The judges did not specify when they plan to issue a ruling.
In another Virginia case brought by ADF, the state Supreme Court last year upheld a lower court ruling that required Loudoun County Public Schools to reinstate a teacher who was suspended after he spoke at a school board meeting in opposition to a proposed policy. which requires teachers to use pronouns used by transgender students. The lawsuit over the school district’s pronoun policy is still pending.
In a federal lawsuit filed by ADF in Ohio, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that Shawnee State University violated the free speech rights of philosophy professor Nicholas Meriwether when they disciplined him for refusing to use the pronouns of a transgender student. As a result of the settlement, the university agreed to pay $400,000 in damages and Meriwether’s legal costs.
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