Virginia Supreme Court Rules Teacher Can Sue School That Fired Him for Not Using Student’s Preferred Pronouns


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‘The circuit court erred when it dismissed this case based solely on a review of the pleadings,’ the majority on the Virginia Supreme Court ruled.

Virginia’s highest court ruled on Thursday in favor of a high school teacher who was fired after refusing to use one of his student’s preferred pronouns.

The Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the fired high school French teacher, Peter Vlaming, had a valid legal claim that he was wrongfully terminated for refusing to use a student’s chosen pronouns and should be allowed to make his case before a lower court that had previously dismissed his claims.

During the 2017–2018 school year, Mr. Vlaming became aware that a female student had wanted to begin identifying as a male. Mr. Vlaming alleges he proactively met with the student and the student’s parents and began accommodating the change by referring to the female student by a more culturally masculine name they had chosen. But rather than using male or female pronouns, Mr. Vlaming decided to forego the use of pronouns altogether when referring to the female student. The teacher’s efforts to accommodate his student did not satisfy school officials, who ordered him to use the female student’s preferred pronouns.

Mr. Vlaming continued his efforts to avoid using the student’s preferred pronouns, but the issue ultimately came to a head when the student was wearing virtual reality goggles for a classroom exercise. Fearing the student would run into a wall, Mr. Vlaming blurted out “don’t let her hit the wall.” Mr. Vlaming later apologized to the female student and said his use of female pronouns was a spontaneous reaction to the risk the student faced. Despite this apology, the female student quit the course later that day. Meanwhile, Mr. Vlaming was placed on administrative leave and then given a final order to begin using masculine pronouns to refer to the student. When Mr. Vlaming refused that order, he was terminated.

Mr. Vlaming began suing his local school board and school officials over the termination in 2019, accusing them of violating his rights to free speech by punishing him for his views on gender and biological sex and for efforts to compel him to use speech they preferred. His initial legal complaint also accused school officials of violating his right to the free exercise of religion because their pronoun mandates conflicted with his religious beliefs regarding gender and biological sex.

The school officials initially failed to move Mr. Vlaming’s lawsuit to federal court. The school officials later succeeded in convincing a state court to dismiss much of the case after arguing that Mr. Vlaming failed to assert a legally valid cause of action and that his free speech claims should be dismissed because the speech at issue was part of his official duties as a teacher.

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Mr. Vlaming filed an appeal before the Virginia Supreme Court at the end of 2021, initiating an effort to reverse the lower court’s decision. On Thursday the Supreme Court ruled that the lower court’s decision to dismiss the case should be reversed and remanded back for further consideration.

“The circuit court erred when it dismissed this case based solely on a review of the pleadings. Accepting arguendo that the allegations in the complaint are true, as we must because of the posture of this appeal, Vlaming has asserted legally viable claims under the Constitution of Virginia, the [Virginia Religious Freedom Restoration Act], and common-law contract principles,” the majority on the Virginia Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.

The case will now return to the lower court, where Mr. Vlaming is seeking to be reinstated as a school teacher and awarded $1 million for lost wages and reputational harm he sustained from the firing.

“Peter wasn’t fired for something he said; he was fired for something he couldn’t say. 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,” said Chris Schandevel, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which has supported Mr. Vlaming’s case.

Mr. Schandevel said his client was passionate about teaching, was well-liked by his students, and did his best to accommodate the female student’s 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,” the ADF lawyer added.

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