School Pronoun Case Goes before the Virginia Supreme Court
Words have meaning and a weight to the meaning, regardless of the language. Words, whether spoke or not, can also have consequences, justified or not. Words that someone is compelled to speak by the powers that be, such as the government, goes against every fiber of the First Amendment. After all, that is not free speech.
Former West Point, Va. public school teacher Peter Vlaming knows all this first-hand. Vlaming, a West Point High School French teacher, was fired from his job in December of 2018 after working at the school for six years. The reason? “For declining to refer to a female student with male pronouns even though he consistently accommodated the student by using the student’s preferred name instead of the student’s given name.”
The West Point School Board had voted unanimously to follow the district superintendent’s recommendation to fire Vlaming. He later sued the West Point School Board with the help of Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, parental rights, and the sanctity of life.
Vlaming’s case made its way through the state’s court system — and this past Friday, his attorneys at ADF argued his case before the state’s highest court, the Supreme Court of Virginia. Chris Schandevel, one of ADF’s senior counsels, joined “Washington Watch” guest host Joseph Backholm with his client Peter Vlaming to discuss the proceedings.
As Schandevel shared, “Our primary claims are that Peter’s case is a case about compelled speech. He wasn’t fired for anything that he said or for anything that he did. He was fired simply for what he couldn’t say in good conscience. The school attempted to force him basically to endorse their ideological views about sex and gender identity by trying to force him to use biologically incorrect pronouns. And he just couldn’t do that. So they fired him.”
Schandevel continued, “… [T]hat makes his case very strong under our constitutional free speech protections and constitutional protections for the free exercise of religion. It’s one thing to tell a teacher, ‘There are certain viewpoints that we’re fine with you expressing outside the classroom. But, when you’re in the classroom, you need to focus on French, you need to focus on math.’ But to take it to the next step and to say, ‘You actually have to affirmatively mouth these words that you fundamentally disagree with or else we will fire you,’ that raises the stakes in terms of the constitutional violation.”
In their opening brief at the Virginia Supreme Court, Vlaming’s ADF attorneys argue, “At its core, the overarching question presented is a narrow one: whether public school teachers can be forced to violate their religious beliefs by expressing personal agreement with the government’s viewpoint on an issue of public concern. The answer is a resounding ‘No.’”
In other words, there is a real difference between objective truth of male and female and a subjective opinion about one’s gender identity.
“As a language teacher, I think pronouns mean something,” Vlaming has said. “We are born male or female. Whatever we feel — however strongly we feel it — does not change our objectively identifiable gender.” “To pretend otherwise, even in something like the pronouns we use, is to live or indulge a lie. That goes against my training as a teacher and my deepest beliefs as a Christian.”
Thankfully, Vlaming was not alone in his fight against the West Point School Board. He had the support his community and of an abundance of students in the district. One student, who organized a student walk-out in support of Vlaming, was quoted as saying, “Everyone has rights, the student has rights, but so does Mr. Vlaming, This is violating Mr. Vlaming’s First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and religion. He cares about his students, and we care about him.”
Another student echoed that sentiment. “I don’t think it’s fair. The transgender student’s hopes, beliefs, and rights overrode Mr. Vlaming’s. I believe that you can be whoever you want to be gay, lesbian, trans, it doesn’t matter you should be able to be who you want to be. But you also have rights of the First Amendment such as freedom of speech and religion, and Mr. Vlaming’s are being shut out.”
Unfortunately, Vlaming’s story is far from rare. Situations like this are popping up all over the nation from private pre-K to public and private colleges. Since its founding, Alliance Defending Freedom’s Center for Academic Freedom has notched over 435 legal victories against colleges and universities across the country. Sadly, many more Peter Vlamings will be facing similar situations as Americans become increasingly woke.
Alice Chao serves as a Communications Manager at Family Research Council.