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Court reinstates teacher’s lawsuit over pronoun policy

Virginia Supreme Court ruling boosts religious liberty protection in state

Peter Vlaming after his case was argued before the Supreme Court of Virginia, Nov. 4, 2022, in Richmond Associated Press/Photo by Steve Helber

Court reinstates teacher’s lawsuit over pronoun policy

Former high school French teacher Peter Vlaming had checked the website of the Virginia Supreme Court every Thursday for at least the past year, hoping to see his name. Late last week, he finally did. Vlaming didn’t understand the ruling at first, but after talking with attorneys Friday, it became clear: He had won. “It’s sinking in as we speak,” he told me.

In a landmark ruling Thursday, Virginia’s highest court sided with Vlaming, reinstating his lawsuit against a Richmond-area school district that fired him for not using a student’s preferred pronouns.

In a 73-page opinion, a 4-3 majority of the court ruled that the West Point School Board and administrators violated Vlaming’s right to exercise his religion freely under the Virginia Constitution. Writing for the majority, Justice Arthur Kelsey said a provision of the state constitution affords broader protection to religious liberty than the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“In the Commonwealth of Virginia, the constitutional right to free exercise of religion is among the ‘natural and unalienable rights of mankind,’” wrote Kelsey.

Vlaming’s dispute with school officials came to a head in October 2018 when West Point Public Schools issued an ultimatum: Use the male pronoun for a female student or be fired. To accommodate the student, Vlaming referred to her by her chosen, though traditionally male, name and avoided using any pronouns to address pupils. That wasn’t enough for school officials, who demanded that he speak specific words—the pronouns “he” and “him.” By December, the married father of four was unemployed.

The Supreme Court concluded that Vlaming’s refusal to use a male pronoun for a female student but only her preferred name due to religious convictions was an acceptable accommodation that would not violate “peace and good order”—the limiting principle for religious liberty claims in the state.

Even if an accommodation would violate peace and good order, the school still must have a compelling interest to deny the accommodation—and not using preferred pronouns is not compelling enough, wrote Kelsey. “When religious liberty merges with free-speech protections, as it does in this case, mere ‘objectionable’ and ‘hurtful’ religious speech or, as in this case, nonspeech, is not enough to meet this standard,” Kelsey wrote.

In a historical analysis that cited former Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, Kelsey wrote that the Virginia Constitution “seeks to protect diversity of thought, diversity of speech, diversity of religion, and diversity of opinion.” That led to one conclusion: “Absent a truly compelling reason for doing so, no government committed to these principles can lawfully coerce its citizens into pledging verbal allegiance to ideological views that violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Dissenting justices agreed that Vlaming’s lawsuit should be reinstated but said the legal test articulated by the court’s majority went too far. In a 64-page dissent, Justice Thomas Mann complained the majority established “a sweeping super scrutiny standard with the potential to shield any person’s objection to practically any policy or law by claiming a religious justification for their failure to follow either.”

Thursday’s ruling is likely to bring an end to this lawsuit, which has dragged on since attorneys for Alliance Defending Freedom filed a complaint on Vlaming’s behalf in October 2019, nearly a year after his firing. ADF claimed the school violated the state’s constitution and its Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Attorneys also argued the firing breached Vlaming’s employment contract with the school district. A majority backed all of the claims.

ADF attorney Chris Schandevel called the ruling a “historic, landmark victory for free speech and religious freedom,” explaining that the case allowed the court the first opportunity to stake out how strongly the Virginia Constitution protects religious liberty.

“Virginia is really the birthplace of religious freedom in our country,” said Schandevel. He added that other states and even the Supreme Court may look to the court’s ruling as precedent in interpreting their own state constitutions. Now the case would be returned to the trial court, he said, and the school district must decide whether to keep pushing the case.

While the ruling will apply only in Virginia, it could encourage arguments that some other state constitutional provisions similarly offer greater protection to religious liberty than the U.S. Constitution.

“People are realizing that there’s this rich history of constitutional law that is there at the state level but in many states hasn’t really been developed because it hasn’t really been tried,” he said.

For Vlaming, the loss of his job and long years of waiting for vindication have strengthened his faith. “I thank God—the Lord Jesus Christ—for giving me the faith, or the courage, necessary to stand by my convictions,” he said, adding that many people surrounded and supported them.

“I don’t really think people see how much this was a case of your thoughts and your beliefs being policed,” said Vlaming. “I’m hoping that teachers across the state of Virginia … would have the courage to … not give in to cowardice or cowering when they see their administration going in a certain ideological direction.”

WORLD has updated this report from its initial posting to clarify how Peter Vlaming referred to a student who identified as transgender.

Steve West

Steve is a reporter for WORLD. A graduate of World Journalism Institute, he worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor in Raleigh, N.C., where he resides with his wife.



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