Trans rights vs. religious rights? A Virginia teacher fired for refursing to use male pronouns for a student he saw as female cited his Christian faith as the reason. He filed suit today against the school board for firing him. 
Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Trans students: Matter of pronouns becomes matter for courts

When the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported on the firing of a popular Virginia French teacher last year for refusing to use a transgender student’s new pronouns, journalist Graham Moomaw noted, “…the dispute has all the makings of a legal fight, presenting a novel mix of questions about LGBTQ rights, religious freedom and the limits of free speech for public employees.”

Today, it became a legal fight.

Attorneys for the Alliance Defending Freedom filed suit against the West Point School Board on behalf of fired teacher Peter Vlaming.

“Peter went out of his way to accommodate this student as he does all his students; his school fired him because he wouldn’t contradict his core beliefs,” said Alliance Legal Counsel Caleb Dalton in a statement. “In his French class, he always calls his students by the name they choose. He even used the student’s preferred masculine name and was willing to avoid using pronouns in the student’s presence. He just didn’t want to be forced to use a pronoun that offends his conscience. That’s entirely reasonable, and it’s his constitutionally protected right. Tolerance, after all, is a two-way street.”

The Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom is a nonprofit legal organization that advocates for "the right of people to freely live out their faith.” Last year, it reached a $1.2 million settlement with Atlanta for former fire chief Kelvin Cochran over his firing after he authored a book that condemned homosexuality. It also represented two conservative student groups last year that sued Kennesaw State University. Both of those lawsuits were settled.

In its unanimous decision to fire Vlaming in December after a four-hour  meeting in front of a packed house, the West Point school board cited insubordination. It issued a statement following its vote:

West Point Public Schools has the responsibility to ensure all students have a safe and supportive school environment where they can learn and thrive. We do not and cannot tolerate discrimination in any form, or actions that create a hostile environment for any member of our school family. Mr. Vlaming was asked repeatedly, over several weeks and by multiple administrators, to address a student by the pronouns with which this student identifies. The issue before us was not one mistaken slip of the tongue. Mr. Vlaming consistently refused to comply going forward -- including in a statement made at the hearing -- a willful violation of school board policy.

According to the Richmond paper in its story about Vlaming’s dismissal: 

Vlaming, 47, who had taught at the school for almost seven years after spending more than a decade in France, told his superiors his Christian faith prevented him from using male pronouns for a student he saw as female. The student’s family informed the school system of the transition over the summer. Vlaming said he had the student in class the year before when the student identified as female.

Vlaming agreed to use the student’s new, male name. But he tried to avoid using any pronouns — he or him, and she or her — when referring to the student. The student said that made him feel uncomfortable and singled out.

No one suggested that Vlaming deliberately used female pronouns to refer to the student in the student’s presence, but he did use female pronouns to refer to the student in conversations with others. Witnesses described one pronoun “slip-up” during a class activity on Halloween when the student was using a virtual reality headset. The student was about to run into a wall, and Vlaming told others to stop “her.”

Vlaming, who is pursuing a master’s degree in school administration at the College of William & Mary, asked the School Board to consider what he called the “absurdity” of punishing a teacher for discrimination on the basis of pronoun usage alone, with no accusation of overtly malicious behavior. “I am being punished for what I haven’t said,” Vlaming said.

Many parents and students at West Point High School in Williamsburg, Va., supported Vlaming. About 100 students staged a walkout in which some carried signs proclaiming "Men are men. Women are women.” And nearly 14,000 people signed a petition calling for the board to give him back his job.

But a counter petition to protect trans students said: 

Mr. Vlaming got fired because he refused to call a trans student by their correct name and pronouns. He refused to, just because his religion was against it. Religion is an important thing to most people, but as a teacher he is not allowed to bring his religion into anything with a student. This student just wants to be called by the name and gender they want, and Mr. Vlaming was not using the right pronouns all throughout the year. This student has been openly trans for the whole year and they constantly were correcting him and no matter what they did Mr. Vlaming didn't correct himself. Trans people have to wake up every morning and hate themselves because they were born into a body they didn't want, so the least everyone can do is respect their preferred names and pronouns. In the end, this isn't about a teacher. This is about a problem that has been going on for years. Trans people should have the right to be able to walk outside their homes and not get ridiculed for who they are and who they want to be. If you agree please sign this petition to protect trans kids everywhere. 

Your thoughts? 

If you are interested in this issue, you can read here what the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network advises.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.