With Parental Rights in Spotlight on Election Day, Some Christian Teachers Balk at Using Gender Pronouns
Court cases over suspensions and firings lead judges to figure out what teachers can and can’t do, as debate over school gender-identity policies figures prominently in the midterm elections.
During a court hearing in Kansas in May, a federal judge asked a lawyer for a public-school district in the Sunflower State what a teacher should do when a student who identifies as “transgender” in school hasn’t authorized school officials to tell the parents about the development, which includes calling the student by a new name and using new pronouns.
“You have a policy that says teachers are supposed to use the preferred name, and you have another policy that says you can’t inform parents of the preferred name. So what — what should a teacher do in that situation?” Judge Holly Teeter asked, according to a transcript of the hearing.
“Use no name at all,” the lawyer replied.
The judge replied: “You think it’s — I mean, I’m asking this legitimately: It’s realistic to get through an entire parent-teacher conference without ever referring to the student by name or pronoun?”
Three days later, Judge Teeter issued a preliminary injunction preventing the Geary County Unified School District from disciplining a math teacher “for referring to a student by the student’s preferred name and pronouns in her communications with the student’s parents within the regular course or her duties.”
The exchange highlights some of the difficulties some teachers and school officials are encountering when it comes to gender identity — an area the judge described in her order as “a difficult and complex area of the law that continues to develop.”
School officials say they’re trying to prevent discrimination against students who identify differently from their sex at birth and provide them with a safe learning environment.
Some teachers who profess Christianity say school officials are forcing them to affirm a lie about their students and to deceive parents about what their children are doing at school.
The clash has led to tense school situations and significant disciplinary measures against some teachers. In Ludlow, Massachusetts, for instance, Bonnie Manchester, a middle-school teacher, was fired in 2021 for informing parents that their two children at the school were attempting to transition to a new gender identity. School officials had instructed teachers not to tell the parents.
Kansas Teacher Wins
In the Kansas case, the teacher, Pamela Ricard, is a Christian who says her religious beliefs prevent her from using personal pronouns that don’t correspond with a student’s biological sex. She was suspended for three days in April 2021 and received a formal written reprimand for refusing to use a biologically female student’s new masculine name.
“Ms. Ricard’s faith teaches her that God immutably creates each person as male or female; these two distinct, complementary sexes reflect the image of God; and rejection of one’s biological sex is a rejection of the image of God within that person,” her complaint, filed by her lawyers in March 2022, states.
She later decided she would use students’ preferred names in class but not pronouns that don’t correspond to their biological sex, preferring to avoid pronouns altogether. She also balked at being required to hide from parents their children’s decision to identify with another sex at school.
After the judge’s order in May, the school district settled the case, paying Ricard $95,000 and removing the letter of reprimand from her personnel file. She has since moved out of state, her lawyer, Joshua Ney, told the Register.
“It shows how absurd this has gotten, when it comes to how we expect reasonable people who are acting in good faith to navigate this new morality code that changes by the day,” Ney said in a telephone interview.
A representative for the Geary County public schools could not be reached for comment by deadline.
In east-central Virginia, the town of West Point’s school district fired a French teacher in 2018 for refusing to use masculine pronouns for a biologically female student who identified as a male. The teacher, Peter Vlaming, was willing to use the student’s new masculine name and decided to try to avoid pronouns altogether — though he did at least once refer to the student with a feminine pronoun.
The Virginia Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case on Friday, Nov. 4.
A lawyer for the school board said the teacher wasn’t fired for the so-called slip-up, but for violating the school district’s nondiscrimination policy when it comes to transgender students, adding that the teacher’s religious-freedom claims don’t stand up because he was a public employee bound to follow the school district’s policies.
“The critical point is that when a teacher is in the classroom, in front of students who are required to be there, delivering the school board’s curriculum, this is the molten core of when a public teacher’s religious belief does not exempt him from compliance with school nondiscrimination policy,” said Alan Schoenfeld, a lawyer representing the school board, during oral argument.
At one point, a justice asked how the teacher was discriminating against a student simply by not using pronouns at all.
“I understand your question: Why wasn’t it a suitable accommodation to allow him to refer to students only by their preferred names and not their pronouns? Again, I think that type of exclusionary conduct — excluding from your vocabulary words that you would use in the ordinary course, in order to not violate a nondiscrimination policy — is a form of discrimination. I think the effect on students is to feel isolated,” Schoenfeld said.
He argued that avoiding the use of pronouns is so unnatural that it calls attention to a student’s transgender identity — and he noted that the teacher’s one reported pronoun slip-up was so upsetting to the student that the student left the classroom during class.
“Schools don’t need to wait until something truly toxic happens in a classroom to determine that a nondiscrimination policy has been violated. The school was under no obligation to wait for Mr. Vlaming to refer to the student again —– accidentally or purposefully — as a ‘she’ in order to terminate him for nondiscrimination purposes. And it was inevitable that that was going to happen again, just as it happened once accidentally. So to be clear, the termination here was not as a result of one momentary lapse. It was a result of an outright refusal to comply with a nondiscrimination policy,” Schoenfeld said.
A lawyer representing the teacher likened the case to situations where students or teachers have objected to saying the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of a school day — something courts have said that public-school districts may not require them to do.
“We believe that compelled pronoun usage is the compelled flag-salute debate of our time. And just like with that debate, over compelled Pledge of Allegiance [participation], regardless of whether or not some of the proponents of compelled pronoun usage might be well-intentioned, this is a badly misguided policy as a proposed solution for gender dysphoria, and it is a flatly unconstitutional policy as a proposed solution for a quiet, respectful dissent,” said Christopher Schandevel, a lawyer with Alliance Defending Freedom, during the oral argument.
A decision in the case isn’t expected until at least January 2023.
More Litigation in the Offing?
In the Kansas case, one of the things the teacher sought was to have students who announce a new name to formally reenroll under that name, so that the new name would be in the school’s computer system.
But school officials objected, and the teacher’s lawyers eventually found out why: If the student reregistered, the student’s parents would find out about the gender transition.
“They didn’t want parents to know,” Ney, the teacher’s lawyer, told the Register.
He said more legal cases are needed to sort out what parents are entitled to know.
“Frankly, we need more litigation when it comes to parental rights. That’s what I’m most pleased about in this case,” Ney said. “If parents don’t have a right to information, then they’re getting a product that they think is one thing and is actually another.”
Gender-Identity Policy Is a Factor in Some Campaigns
Gender identity in schools and parents’ rights are campaign issues in some races in Tuesday’s election at the state, federal and especially local levels.
“Gender identity plays a huge role in the movement to get rid of inappropriate books in schools. That is by far the biggest motivating factor in involvement by parents we’ve seen,” said Aiden Buzzetti, head of coalitions and candidate recruitment for the 1776 Project PAC, which supports conservative candidates for local school boards.
The so-called super-PAC (political action committee) has raised about $3.1 million since its inception in May 2021, according to the Federal Election Commission. Under federal law, the organization does not donate to campaigns directly, but instead campaigns in favor of endorsed candidates.
It grew out of the frustration some parents felt during the coronavirus emergency over school closures, mask mandates and vaccination requirements, Buzzetti told the Register. At the same time, he said, some parents who watched online classes learned that some teachers espoused race and gender-identity theories that they disagree with.
Since May 2021, he said, 1776 Project PAC has received more than 300 applications for endorsements from local school-board candidates. At least 20 were from former educators unhappy with the public-school policies they were required to fulfill, he said.
“We see these decisions by administrators affect teachers,” Buzzetti said. “They create an atmosphere conservative teachers feel is unwelcoming, so they end up leaving school entirely or moving to another school district.”
Kenneth Cosgrove, a professor of political science at Suffolk University in Massachusetts, said Republicans in state and federal races are using gender-identity policies in public schools as a wedge issue.
He noted that Virginia’s governor, Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, used such themes effectively during his winning campaign in 2021. Gender-identity curriculums, “Drag Queen Story Hour” at public libraries, and gender-identity books in school libraries draw fire from some parents and can become campaign fodder.
“Republicans are trying to use this issue to stress the theme of traditional values and the idea that sex is a biological phenomenon not a form of social construction, so it fits with their traditional values-and-institutions pitch,” Cosgrove told the Register by email. “… This is also a standard version of the GOP protecting the two-parent, traditional-gender-role unit and its right to decide how their children are raised versus an expert class that seems intent on undermining the parental authority over and right to care for their kids.”