A Virginia public school teacher fired for refusing orders to use preferred pronouns for a biologically female student who identifies as male appealed his case to the state’s Supreme Court on Tuesday.
Peter Vlaming had been employed for nearly six years as a French teacher at West Point High School, about 40 miles east of Richmond, when the school board fired him on the recommendation of the West Point School District’s superintendent. Vlaming, who had opted to use the student’s preferred first name but not “he” and “him” pronouns, inadvertently referred to the female student as “she” one day in class. That misstep and Vlaming’s unwillingness to compromise his religious beliefs ultimately led to his dismissal.
“Mr. Vlaming was not fired for something he said; he was fired for something that he could not say based on his religious beliefs,” his lawyer from Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), Chris Schandevel, told the state Supreme Court on Tuesday, the Daily Signal reported. “This is a case about compelled speech.”
According to the court documents in the case, Vlaming v. West Point School Board, Vlaming believed he would be lying if he were to “affirmatively express his agreement with [the student’s] choice based on his sincerely held religious and philosophical beliefs about human nature.”
Vlaming decided to avoid third-person pronouns for any of his students. Instead, he used first names when possible in order to not draw undue attention to the student and to “accommodate and respect the student’s choice to identify as male while not violating his own conscience.”
But by Vlaming’s refusal to use male pronouns for the student, an assistant school principal warned him that he could be in violating federal law and school district policy, even though the school was relying on then-outdated directives from the federal Justice and Education Departments that had been revoked by then. Meanwhile, the student’s mother, upset with Vlaming’s avoidance of pronouns, insisted to school administrators that he use “identity-based terms to show the student that Vlaming affirmed and agreed with the student’s gender identity.”
Even though Vlaming explained that using male pronouns for the biological female would violate his religious beliefs and conscience, the school board still voted to fire him in December 2018.
“Peter’s case isn’t about anything he ever said,” ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer said. “It is about a school demanding total conformity in utter disregard of Peter’s efforts and his legally protected freedoms.”
In 2019, Vlaming filed a lawsuit against the West Point School Board for breach of contract, claiming the district violated his rights under the Virginia Constitution. Nearly two years later, on Aug. 13, 2021, the King William Circuit Court in Virginia dismissed Vlaming’s claim without comment.
Vlaming, a father of four, hasn’t been able to find another public school teaching position. His suit seeks his reinstatement to his former job at equal or higher pay plus $1 million in damages—$500,000 for current and future wages and benefits, and $500,000 for loss of reputation and emotional distress.
Schandevel told Decision in an email that Vlaming’s legal team at ADF is “optimistic” the court will announce its decision on the status of the lawsuit soon.
“While it can be hard to glean much from questions at argument, we were very encouraged by the number of questions we received and by how engaged the justices were on the issues we raised in our petition,” Schandevel added.