Court revives suit by teacher fired for not using trans student’s pronouns

Conservatives hail divided high court ruling in Virginia as a win for religious freedom; supporters of transgender rights cast it a license to discriminate

By Justin Jouvenal, The Washington Post – 12/14/2023

In a ruling hailed as a major victory by conservatives, Virginia’s Supreme Court on Thursday revived a lawsuit by a teacher who claims his religious liberties and free-speech rights were violated when school officials fired him for refusing to use the pronouns of a transgender student.

In a split 143-page decision, the justices overturned a lower court decision dismissing Peter Vlaming’s case, which has drawn national attention because it pitted the hotly contested issues of transgender rights and religious freedom against each other. In its 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court remanded the case to a lower court for trial.

The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the conservative Christian group that is representing Vlaming, called the ruling a “sweeping victory” for free speech and religious rights, and Virginia Attorney General Jason S. Miyares (R) said “it dramatically expands the protection of religious liberty.”

But legal counsel for the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), which has followed the case, called it “dangerous and misguided” and said it gives teachers a right to discriminate. The expansiveness of the ruling also troubled two justices who dissented from the majority opinion, who wrote that Virginia now stands alone in the country in offering “a super scrutiny for religious rights but no others.”

“As a teacher, Peter was passionate about the subject he taught, was well-liked by his students, and did his best to accommodate their needs and requests,” ADF senior counsel Chris Schandevel said in a statement. “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.”

Administrators with West Point High School, where Vlaming worked, and West Point School District, who are named as defendants in the lawsuit, did not respond to a request for comment Thursday. The rural school is about 40 miles east of Richmond.

Shannon Minter, legal director for NCLR, said in a statement that the ruling ignores teachers’ obligations under the law.

“Requiring teachers to treat transgender students equally when they address them in class is about prohibiting discriminatory conduct, not speech,” Minter said. “Such a rule no more restricts protected speech than requiring teachers to treat any other group of students equally.”

Vlaming, who taught French, claims in his lawsuit he couldn’t refer to a transitioning student assigned female at birth by masculine pronouns because it violated the tenets of his Christian faith.

Vlaming, a six-year teacher, told the student he would use the student’s male name in class and try not to use pronouns in an effort to balance the student’s wishes and his own religious beliefs, according to the lawsuit.

But school administrators told him it would violate a nondiscrimination policy to not use the student’s masculine pronouns and issued Vlaming warnings, according to the suit. When Vlaming still refused to use the masculine pronouns, the lawsuit says, the school board fired him in December 2018.

Vlaming filed his lawsuit in 2019, claiming the school and district officials violated Virginia’s constitution and state law. He is seeking to be reinstated to his position and damages of $1 million.

The lawsuit did not argue that administrators violated Vlaming’s federal constitutional rights, so the Virginia Supreme Court’s ruling is the final say on the matter and cannot be appealed to federal court.

A King William County Circuit Court judge dismissed most of Vlaming’s claims following motions by the defendants, and Vlaming eventually dropped the rest of the lawsuit before appealing the dismissals to the state Supreme Court last year.

The Virginia Supreme Court ruled that Vlaming did have grounds to sue and reinstated the lawsuit, finding that Virginia’s constitution extends robust protections to religious liberty, perhaps even more so than the First Amendment.

“Our Constitutional Republic … cannot be true to itself if it curates between those who can and those who cannot participate in the public marketplace of ideas and retreat, when necessary, to the private sanctuary of conscience,” the majority opinion states. “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.”

L. Steven Emmert, an appellate attorney in Virginia who is not involved in the case, said in an analysis that some of the dissenters were concerned that the decision was so broad it might open the door “to a form of religious tyranny of the minority, or even of a single citizen.”

The ACLU of Virginia said in a statement that “public school officials are still bound by federal law to not discriminate against their students.”

Emmert said in an interview that time will tell whether the ruling is truly as sweeping as conservatives contend but that the decision comports with the “modern trend” of greatly expanding the free exercise of religion, particularly by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Emmert pointed to U.S. Supreme Court decisions in recent years, including one allowing a massive cross on public land in Maryland and another allowing a town council to open meetings with a prayer, as part of the trend.

“This was Virginia’s turn,” Emmert said.