Va. Supreme Court Rules for Teacher Who Declined to Use Student’s ‘Preferred Pronouns’

(Robert Jonathan, Headline USA) Chalk up a win for religious liberty, free speech and, perhaps, common sense, over the pronoun police.

The Virginia Supreme Court has given new life to a lawsuit by a former teacher against a school board that fired him over a pronoun controversy.

In a case that has dragged on for about five years, the state’s highest court ruled that Peter Vlaming, who taught French at a Richmond-area high school, had grounds to sue the board under Article 1, Section 16 (“free exercise of religion”) in the Virginia constitution.

A glance at Section 16 reveals that it appears more far-reaching than the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

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States generally have the power to grant more freedoms than the U.S. government in keeping with the federal Supremacy Clause but cannot curtail freedoms granted under federal law.

Vlaming reportedly got into hot water with the West Point School Board for declining to use masculine pronouns when referring to a biologically female student.

“In class, Vlaming referred to a transgender student by the student’s preferred name and avoided the use of third-person pronouns when referring to the student,” noted the 143-page state Supreme Court ruling.

“Vlaming claims that the School Board ordered him to use government-mandated pronouns in addition to using the student’s preferred name,” said the ruling. “The School Board fired Vlaming for refusing to do so.”

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Vlaming maintained that his religious convictions precluded him from using male pronouns to refer to a female student.

In a video interview with the Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal (see above), Vlaming explained that “I understood her point of view, and respected the fact that she could choose to think what she wants to think … but I couldn’t in good conscience designate her via third-person pronouns as a boy…”

As a practical issue, he also pointed out that the use of third-person personal pronouns in directly addressing an individual is grammatically incorrect.

The high court indicated in its decision that “Absent a truly compelling reason for doing so, no government committed to these [constitutional] principles can lawfully coerce its citizens into pledging verbal allegiance to ideological views that violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

The nonprofit legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom represented Vlaming in the litigation.

“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,” said ADF Senior Counsel Chris Schandevel, reacting to the above portion of the court’s opinion. “And the Virginia Supreme Court rightly vindicated Vlaming’s right to stand by his convictions in its decision.”

As part of a statement about this positive outcome, Schandevel implied that there was a component of irony in the case.

“Peter wasn’t fired for something he said; he was fired for something he couldn’t say,” Schandevel noted. “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.”

Schandevel added that “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. 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.”

Several other conservative watchdog groups filed amicus curiae briefs in the closely watched, high profile case. Among them was the NC Values Coalition, which saw broader implications in the outcome from the Tarheel State’s northern neighbor.

“A school board policy mandating that teachers and school staff use the pronouns chosen by a transgender student rather than the pronouns matching the student’s biological sex is the epitome of viewpoint-based compelled speech, and as such, violates a teacher’s First Amendment protections of free speech and freedom of religion,” NC Values Executive Director Tami Fitzgerald told Headline USA in an email.

“Thankfully, the Virginia Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the teacher’s right to exercise his First Amendment rights, and thus, teachers in the Fourth Circuit can rest assured they will not be forced to sacrifice their constitutional rights as a condition of employment,” Fitzgerald added. “They are free to use male pronouns for boys and female pronouns for girls. Thus, common sense prevails, thank God.”

Vlaming’s legal complaint, which also includes a breach-of-contract allegation, was previously dismissed by a lower court.

This successful appeal green-lights the case for trial, although not handing the teacher an automatic win to enable him to get his job back right way.

A settlement is also a possibility. Vlaming is seeking $1 million in money damages, in addition to reinstatement.

In the context of procedure, and in law, procedural technicalities rather than the merits can sometimes be decisive. “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,” the Washington Post observed.

Under some stubborn, misguided local school boards, the Virginia public school system to  a certain degree has become an epicenter for identity politics, which likely led to the election of GOP candidate Glenn Youngkin as governor in 2021.

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