Virginia court revives lawsuit by teacher fired for refusing to use transgender student’s pronouns
Dec 14, 2023, 2:45 PM
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A lawsuit filed by a Virginia high school teacher who was fired after he refused to use a transgender student’s pronouns was reinstated Thursday by the state Supreme Court.
Peter Vlaming, a former French teacher at West Point High School, sued the school board and administrators at West Point High School after he was fired in 2018. A judge dismissed the lawsuit before any evidence was heard in the case. But the Supreme Court overturned that ruling and said the lawsuit can proceed to trial.
Vlaming claimed in his lawsuit that he tried to accommodate a transgender student in his class by using his masculine name and avoiding the use of pronouns, but the student, his parents and the school told him he was required to use the student’s male pronouns.
Vlaming said he could not use the student’s pronouns because of his “sincerely held religious and philosophical” beliefs “that each person’s sex is biologically fixed and cannot be changed.” Vlaming also said he would be lying if he used the student’s pronouns.
His lawsuit, brought by Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal advocacy group, alleged that the school violated his constitutional right to speak freely and exercise his religion. The school board argued that Vlaming violated the school’s anti-discrimination policy.
All seven justices of the state Supreme Court agreed that two of Vlaming’s claims should move forward to trial: his claim that his right to freely exercise his religion was violated under the Virginia constitution and his breach of contract claim against the school board.
“Absent a truly compelling reason for doing so, no government committed to these principles can lawfully coerce its citizens into pledging verbal allegiance to ideological views that violate their sincerely held religious beliefs,” Justice D. Arthur Kelsey wrote in the majority opinion, joined by three other justices.
But the court was split on some aspects of the lawsuit. In a dissenting opinion, Justice Thomas Mann, joined by two other justices, wrote that the majority’s opinion on Vlaming’s free-exercise-of-religion claim was overly broad and “establishes a sweeping super scrutiny standard with the potential to shield any person’s objection to practically any policy or law by claiming a religious justification for their failure to follow either.”
Vlaming’s attorney, Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel Christopher Schandevel, said Vlaming was well-liked by his students and “did his best to accommodate their needs and requests.”
“But he couldn’t in good conscience speak messages that he doesn’t believe to be true, and no school board or government official can punish someone for that reason,” Schandevel said.
During arguments before the state Supreme Court in November 2002, Alan Schoenfeld, an attorney who represents the school board and school administrators, said Vlaming’s speech was part of his official teaching duties and his refusal to use the student’s pronouns clearly violated the anti-discrimination policy.
”A public school employee is not at liberty to declare that he will not comply with a neutrally applicable policy that is part of his duties as a classroom teacher,” he said.
Schoenfeld did not immediately respond to a telephone message Thursday. School board Chair Elliot Jenkins and Vice-Chair Laura Shreaves did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment on the ruling.
Alliance Defending Freedom has brought at least six similar lawsuits — three in Virginia, and one each in Ohio, Kansas and Indiana.