Court Revives Lawsuit from Christian Teacher Fired over Pronouns
In 2019, Peter Vlaming, a French teacher, was fired from West Point High School in Virginia because he refused to cater to a trans-identifying student’s “preferred” pronouns. “I can disagree with my students without provoking my students,” he said. “I’m there to teach French.” But even after the teacher tried to compromise by using the student’s name to avoid pronouns, the school was not satisfied. In response to being fired, Vlaming sued the school.
The initial lawsuit stated that “school board officials” violated the Virginia State Constitution because they “illegally punished him by giving him an ultimatum to be fired or violate his conscience as a devout Christian.” The case, brought by the Christian legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), went before the Virginia Supreme Court, but was dismissed by a lower court ruling.
After Vlaming appealed that court ruling earlier this year, the state supreme court ruled on Thursday “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,” The Washington Post reported.
However, opponents such as the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) feel the reinstatement is “dangerous and misguided,” and that these circumstances make LGBT students vulnerable to “discrimination.” But in response to such claims, Christopher Schandevel, an ADF attorney, said, “This is a case about compelled speech.” He noted that it’s about something Vlaming “couldn’t say,” rather than something he did say. As such, the reinstatement of the case, as described by ADF, is a “sweeping victory” for the freedom of speech and religion and does not serve as any form of discrimination.
Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation, commented to The Washington Stand, “There is, without question, a desire from those in the LGBT community to not only have tolerance and coexistence with their ideology, but to force everyone to endorse and celebrate” it. She continued, “And that is where the law steps in, particularly as it butts up against people’s religious freedom.”
As Cobb explained, the truth about what happened in Vlaming’s classroom in 2019 shows that he was aiming to be respectful toward the student, but “that was simply not enough for the school system.” She added, “this decision puts us in the right direction of understanding that government should never be able to compel someone’s speech.”
While the reinstatement is a win for free speech and religious freedom, his case is one of the first of its kind in Virginia. Meg Kilgannon, senior fellow for Education Studies at Family Research Council, shared with TWS, “Peter Vlaming was one of the first casualties in the gender wars. Most people didn’t think this was a real problem — children trying to change their sex.” She continued, “Mr. Vlaming’s firing over accidentally using the ‘wrong’ pronoun was shocking.” Cobb added that not only was this the first time a teacher was fired over pronouns but that West Point High School was an “unlikely location” for it to have happened. In many ways, the case being dismissed was “surprising.” But even though it took a couple years to set the record straight, she emphasized that this recent decision was “well worth” the wait.
Cobb emphasized that she and everyone at the Family Foundation want “to encourage people to be committed to their faith and when their conscience is telling them they cannot do or say something.” With these kinds of instances, she explained that there is often “real damage” done. But when faith is compromised, she said, “We want them to be willing to stand” because “we are not subjects of the state.”
Cobb concluded, “Christmas came early for religious freedom in Virginia,” but “if we get to the point where government can compel words out of individuals in violation of their faith, we have trampled the understanding our founders had of how religious freedom would play out in our nation.”
Sarah Holliday is a reporter at The Washington Stand.