A Virginia teacher who was fired for refusing to use a student’s self-proclaimed preferred pronouns had his lawsuit against the school board revived by the Virginia Supreme Court on Thursday, marking a significant win for religious freedom.
Peter Vlaming, a former high school French teacher at West Point Schools, was terminated for refusing to use pronouns that denied a student’s biological sex, arguing that it would violate his religious beliefs. Instead of using any pronouns, Vlaming chose to avoid them altogether when addressing the female student who identified as male.
The teacher agreed to address the student using a chosen name and even encouraged all students in the class to select a new French name for the duration of the course to ensure that the student identifying as trans wouldn’t feel isolated.
Unsatisfied with Vlaming’s alternative approach, the West Point School Board ordered him to use the student’s chosen pronouns. When the teacher declined, the student filed a complaint against him.
School administrators accused Vlaming of violating harassment and nondiscrimination policies. With a unanimous 5-0 vote, the school board terminated his employment in 2018.
“Mr. Vlaming was recommended for termination due to his insubordination and repeated refusal to comply with directives from multiple WPPS administrators. That discrimination then led to creating a hostile learning environment. The student had expressed that. The parent had expressed that. They felt disrespected,” West Point Schools Superintendent Laura Abel stated.
In 2019, Vlaming initiated legal action against the school board; however, the Virginia Circuit Court dismissed the lawsuit. On Thursday, the Virginia Supreme Court decided to overturn the lower court’s decision, reviving Vlaming’s case:
“The issue here is not whether the School Board’s policies forbidding discrimination and harassment of students applied (as the School Board asserts) or did not apply (as Vlaming asserts) to the compelled-speech situation alleged in the complaint.”
“The issue is whether Vlaming’s sincerely held religious beliefs caused him to commit overt acts that ‘invariably posed some substantial threat to public safety, peace or order,'” the court’s ruling contended, “and if so, whether the government’s compelling state interest in protecting the public from that threat, when examined under the rigors of strict scrutiny, could be satisfied by ‘less restrictive means.'”
“When religious liberty merges with free-speech protections, as it does in this case, mere ‘objectionable’ and ‘hurtful’ religious speech or, as in this case, nonspeech, is not enough to meet this standard,” the ruling continued. In the opinion, the court stated that Virginia’s constitution “seeks to protect diversity of thought, diversity of speech, diversity of religion, and diversity of opinion.”
“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,” it added.
Chris Schandevel, senior counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom and the legal representative for Vlaming, asserted, “Peter wasn’t fired for something he said; he was fired for something he couldn’t say. The Virginia Supreme Court rightly agreed that Peter’s case against the school board for violating his rights under the Virginia Constitution and state law should proceed.”
“The West Point School Board violated that constitutional command when it tried to force Vlaming to endorse the school’s ideological viewpoints on gender identity,” Schandevel said. “And the Virginia Supreme Court rightly vindicated Vlaming’s right to stand by his convictions in its decision,” he concluded.
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