Virginia Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Teacher Who Was Fired Over Pronouns

The Virginia Supreme Court recently issued an opinion in favor of a public school teacher who was terminated after refusing to use the preferred pronouns of a transgendered student.  The case provides an interesting study into the continuing conflicts between LBGTQ rights under federal law and a renewed push for religious freedom.

The plaintiff was a French teacher who had worked at the school for six years.  Near the end of the 2017-18 school year, the teacher learned that a biologically female student (referred to as “John Doe”) intended to transition to a male identity.  This student was previously enrolled in the teacher’s lower-level French classes, and planned to enroll in the upper-level French class taught by the teacher.

At the beginning of each school year, the plaintiff ordinarily asked each of his students to pick a French name that the student would use for that class and any subsequent French classes.  Prior to the beginning of the 2018-19 school year, the plaintiff learned that Doe wanted to use a culturally masculine name instead of the traditionally female name the student had used in past classes.  Seeking “[t]o avoid drawing unwanted attention” to Doe, the teacher asked the entire class to “pick new French names for the semester” despite having already chosen a French name “so that [Doe] would not be the only one changing names.”

As the fall semester progressed, the teacher learned that Doe also wanted to be referred to by masculine pronouns.  The teacher objected to the use of male pronouns on religious grounds, citing his belief that “sex is fixed in each person, and that it cannot be changed, regardless of our feelings or desires.” 

In an attempt to respect Doe’s preferences, the teacher agreed to use Doe’s “new preferred names (both French and English),” and avoided using third-person pronouns when referring to Doe.  So as to not single-out Doe, the teacher also avoided using third-person pronouns to describe other students, and adopted a practice of referring to all students by only their names. 

The administration of the school met with the teacher and advised that he was required to use the preferred pronouns of Doe.  The situation came to a head when, during an in-class exercise with virtual reality goggles, the teacher accidentally blurted out “Don’t let her hit the wall” when Doe was about to walk into the wall while wearing the VR glasses.  The teacher immediately put his hands to his mouth and apologized to Doe, but Doe chose to withdraw from the class the same day.

After repeated demands from the school to use Doe’s preferred masculine pronouns, the teacher continued to object and was terminated.  He brought suit against the school district alleging free-exercise, free-speech, due-process, and breach-of-contract claims resulting from his termination. The teacher brought all claims entirely under Virginia law.  

The trial court granted the school district’s preliminary motion to dismiss, which the teacher appealed.  The Virginia Supreme Court, ruling in favor of the teacher, reiterated the strong protections for religious liberty that Virginia has enshrined in its state constitution and statutes.  The Supreme Court held that none of the teacher’s claims should have been dismissed, and, citing United State Supreme Court precedent, held that students and teachers do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gates.”  Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503 (1969).

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