The Virginia Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case of Peter Vlaming, a West Point High School teacher who was fired in 2018 for avoiding the use of personal pronouns to refer to one of his students.
Vlaming began his teaching career at West Point in 2012. Near the end of the 2017-2018 school year, a female student he had taught the previous year informed him that she was transitioning to a male identity and had chosen a new name to be used going forward.
Vlaming agreed to use the student’s new name, and decided to avoid using pronouns altogether for his students.
But school officials ordered him to not only stop avoiding the use of pronouns, but to use the pronoun of the student’s preferred gender, even when the student wasn’t present.
Vlaming stated he couldn’t in good conscience comply with the superintendent’s order. To do so, he said, was untruthful because it was inconsistent with the student’s biological sex. He was subsequently fired.
According to the complaint filed in the King William Circuit Court, the school board didn’t have any written policy regarding using pronouns.
“It’s not part of a teacher’s job description,” the complaint said. “Instead, Defendants made up an uncompromising interpretation of their policies to compel Mr. Vlaming to take sides in an ongoing public debate regarding gender dysphoria and use pronouns that express an objectively untrue ideological message.”
Since joining West Point, Vlaming had become an integral part of the school staff, serving on the Professional Learning Steering Committee and coaching the school’s first girls’ soccer team. He also started the Rotary Interact Service Club, looked into starting a wrestling team, sponsored the French National Honor Society and taught the school’s first Career Investigations class.
Students showed their support for Vlaming by staging a walkout to protest the board’s action the day after he was terminated.
In September 2019, with the help of attorneys from Alliance Defending Freedom, Vlaming filed a lawsuit against the West Point School Board for wrongful termination and breach of contract under the Virginia Constitution and Virginia law. In September 2021, he asked the Virginia Supreme Court to take up his case after the Circuit Court of the County of King William dismissed it.
“Peter wasn’t fired for something he said; he was fired for something he couldn’t say,” said ADF Senior Counsel Chris Schandevel, who argued the petition for appeal on Vlaming’s behalf.
“As a teacher, Peter was passionate about the subject he taught, he was well liked by his students, and he did his best to accommodate their needs and requests. But Peter could not in good conscience speak messages that he does not believe to be true. We’re pleased the Virginia Supreme Court agreed to hear this important case and are hopeful the court will agree the school board violated Peter’s rights under the Virginia Constitution and state law.”
Fleming has every right to fight the unlawful decision by the school board, ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer said.
“Peter went above and beyond to treat this student with respect, including using the student’s preferred name and avoiding pronoun usage in the student’s presence,” said Langhofer, also director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom. “This was never about anything Peter said. It is about a school demanding total conformity in utter disregard of Peter’s efforts and his freedoms under Virginia law.”
Vlaming’s case is far more than pronouns, the complaint said.
“It is about whether the government may force Mr. Vlaming to express ideas about human nature, unrelated to the school’s curriculum, that he believes are false. If he were to comply with Defendants’ demands, he would be forced to communicate that gender identity, rather than biological reality, fundamentally shapes and defines who we truly are as humans, that our sex can change, and that a woman who identifies as a man really is a man. But if he refers to students based on their biological sex (as he has, with reasonable accommodations), he communicates the views he actually believes—that our sex shapes who we are as humans, that this sex is fixed in each person, and that it cannot be changed, regardless of our feelings or desires.”
This is not the type of philosophical disagreement in which the government may compel individuals to take sides, the complaint said. Society debates important issues every day, whether it’s immigration, health care, welfare, or no-cost higher education.
“It is not harassment to disagree about these issues or to voice that disagreement,” ADF said. “A truly tolerant society can permit such differences and accommodate all views. But here, Defendants have refused to find middle ground … they have made it about dueling views of human nature and compelling conformity to, and support for, only one view. Under the timeless free speech principles enshrined in the Virginia Constitution and laws, Defendants cannot compel one side to voice the other’s beliefs.
“This is a civil rights action under the Constitution and laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Defendants violated the Virginia Constitution and laws of the Commonwealth by firing Mr. Vlaming for exercising his rights to free speech and free exercise.”
Photo: Courtesy of Alliance Defending Freedom