VA Supreme Court Upholds Teacher’s Right to Conscience

VA Supreme Court Upholds Teacher’s Right to Conscience

In a landmark victory for freedom of conscience and religion on Thursday, a Virginia teacher’s constitutional right to refuse to use male pronouns to refer to a female student in the classroom was upheld by the Virginia Supreme Court.

Peter Vlaming, who taught French for seven years for West Point High School in West Point, Virginia, was vindicated in court after a five-year legal battle following his dismissal in December 2018 for refusing to use male pronouns to refer to a female student who desired to transition to a male identity. Vlaming’s refusal was based on his religious and philosophical conviction that using objectively male pronouns in reference to a female is lying. The court ruled it would reinstate a lawsuit against the West Point School Board for violating Vlaming’s rights under Virginia law.

“I’m saddened that West Point Public Schools wouldn’t work with me to reach a happy situation for everyone on this matter so that we could all continue on with learning in mutual respect,” Vlaming said when he filed suit in 2019.

The French teacher went to great lengths to make students in his classroom feel welcomed and was well-liked by his students, according to his attorneys. He even consistently used the female student’s preferred masculine name and made special effort to avoid pronoun usage altogether in the classroom. He met with her personally to discuss this approach, and she reportedly “did not take issue at all” with Vlaming’s practice of avoiding pronouns in class. “The meeting ended on a good note, and the student seemed to be satisfied and comfortable with the situation,” according to court documents.

This was not enough for school officials, however, who ordered him to stop avoiding the use of pronouns and to refer to the student, whether she was present or not, by her preferred male pronouns. Several meetings followed, and school officials eventually called for Vlaming’s dismissal for violating school board policy “prohibiting harassment or retaliation against students and others on the basis of gender identity.” Assistant Principal Suzanne Auspach told him that his “personal religious beliefs end at the school door.”

Vlaming’s complaint alleged the school board violated his rights under the Virginia Constitution, which states that “all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.”

ADF Senior Counsel Chris Schandevel stated that the board “tried to force Vlaming to endorse the school’s ideological viewpoints on gender equality.” The Virginia Supreme Court has upheld this claim, stating, “Absent a truly compelling reason for doing so, no government committed to [the principles of the Virginia Constitution] can lawfully coerce its citizens into pledging verbal allegiance to ideological views that violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

“The school board didn’t care how well Peter treated this student,” ADF Legal Counsel Caleb Dalton said in 2019. “It was on a crusade to compel conformity.”

Photo: Alliance Defending Freedom

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