November 2019 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

A public school teacher in West Point, Va., who was fired after he refused to refer to a transgender student by his proper pronouns is suing, claiming his actions are protected by religious freedom.

Peter Vlaming, a French instructor at West Point High School, was suspended in October 2018 and later fired after he repeatedly referred to the student, a transgender male, with feminine pronouns. The student was so distraught he withdrew from Vlaming’s class.

Vlaming said he had originally agreed to refer to the student by his name and avoid pronouns altogether, but he apparently was unable to do so or chose not to.

His lawsuit, which is being supported by Alliance Defending Freedom, a Religious Right legal group that works to roll back LGBTQ rights, states, “Vlaming’s conscience and religious practice prevents him from intentionally lying, and he sincerely believes that referring to a female as a male by using an objectively male pronoun is telling a lie.”

Officials at the school say Vlaming created a hostile learning environment for the student, whose name has not been publicly disclosed. After a stormy school board meeting in December 2018, the board voted to fire Vlaming.

Vlaming had previously claimed he would be willing to refer to the student by his name and that his use of a female pronoun in one instance was a slip of the tongue. But he added, “I can’t refer to a female as a male and a male as a female in good conscience and faith.”

Following the vote, the board issued a statement reading, “West Point Public Schools has the responsibility to ensure all students have a safe and supportive school environment where they can learn and thrive. We do not and cannot tolerate discrimination in any form, or actions that create a hostile environment for any member of our school family. Mr. Vlaming was asked repeatedly, over several weeks and by multiple administrators, to address a student by the pronouns with which this student identifies. The issue before us was not one mistaken slip of the tongue. Mr. Vlaming consistently refused to comply going forward – including in a statement made at the hearing – a willful violation of school board policy.”

WWBT-TV in Richmond reported that Vlaming’s firing had divided the school community. While some students supported the transgender student, others walked out of class to support Vlaming. About 100 students took part in the protest, some carrying signs that read, “Men are men. Women are women.”