Virginia Teacher Fired for Not Using Transgender Student's Chosen Pronoun Because of Religious Beliefs

Gavel on a book

The West Point School Board voted unanimously to fire Peter Vlaming, who taught French at West Point High School, for refusing to refer to a ninth-grader by male pronouns when he perceived the student to be female.

A Virginia teacher was terminated on Thursday for not using a transgender student's chosen pronoun because of religious reasons. 

The West Point School Board voted unanimously to fire Peter Vlaming, who taught French at West Point High School, for refusing to refer to a ninth-grader by male pronouns when he perceived the student to be female, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The vote came on the heels of a recommendation by the West Point schools superintendent to terminate Vlaming. 

"After thoughtful deliberation, the School Board voted to support the superintendent’s recommendation," read a statement from the board. "The School Board has adopted policies and tonight we upheld these policies."

The board declined to comment further. 

Vlaming had long resisted officials' urgings to use the student's preferred pronoun, claiming doing so went against his Christian beliefs, the paper reported.

The student transitioned over the summer and his family notified school officials of the student's new name and chosen pronoun at that time, according to the paper. Vlaming used the new name without issue, but allegedly avoided using any pronouns to address the student, making him feel isolated, the Times-Dispatch reported.

School administrators ultimately recommended that Vlaming be terminated, alleging he had acted against the school's policies, which were recently updated to feature gender identity protections. 

However, Vlaming's attorney, Shawn Voyles, said the updates offered no guidance on the use of pronouns and argued that forcing Vlaming to use the student's chosen pronoun violated his constitutional rights. 

“One of those rights that is not curtailed is to be free from being compelled to speak something that violates your conscience,” Voyles told the Times-Dispatch. 

Voyles added to local station WRIC: “My client respects this student’s rights; he is simply asking that his rights be respected as well."

An online petition demanding that Vlaming be reinstated has amassed more than 1,000 signatures. The petition states that Vlaming "mistakenly referred" to the student as "her" on two instances this year. After the student's parent complained, according to the petition, Vlaming was "asked to sign a paper stating he wouldn't refer to the student as a female."

"He stated he couldn't promise that he wouldn't 'slip up' again because for the previous [two] school years the student identified as a female, still looks like a female and he's not use[d] to the student as a male," the petition states. 

"I won't use male pronouns with a female student that now identifies as a male though I did agree to use the new masculine name but avoid female pronouns," Vlaming said, according to the petition. 

The petition adds that he "doesn't want any attention drawn to the student during this process because he doesn't want the student to get hurt."

Instead, the petition states, Vlaming merely wants to address the administration's requirements regarding this issue.

Thursday's hearing saw a large group of people supporting Vlaming, who's described as a "model" teacher, according to the Times-Dispatch. 

For his part, Vlaming said he is not sure if he plans to pursue litigation against the school. “I have to research how we would do that, what that would entail,” Vlaming said, according to the Times-Dispatch. “I do think it’s a serious question of First Amendment rights.”

He added: "I am being punished for what I haven’t said." reached out to Voyles, who gave the following statement: 

My client was fired because of what he would not say. This is the definition of unconstitutional compelled speech. 

Tolerance should be a two-way street. My client has always respected this student’s rights and continues to do so; he simply asked that his rights be respected as well. Unfortunately, the school board refused to consider any solutions that would respect the freedoms of everyone involved. It instead chose to impose its own orthodoxy on Mr. Vlaming under threat of termination – which it carried out last night – if he did not relinquish his rights protected by the First Amendment.

The school division suspended my client on Oct. 31 despite his offer to continue using the student’s new chosen name and to avoid female pronouns. School division officials rejected this proposal and anything else that would allow my client to speak according to his conscience and sincerely held religious beliefs. Instead, in a Nov. 6 letter to my client, West Point School Division Superintendent Laura Abel set forth an ultimatum: “My expectation is that you will treat [the student] the same as other male students, including using his preferred name and using male pronouns to refer to him. If you refuse to comply with this directive or if you have any further instances of using female pronouns or of avoiding the use of male pronouns to refer to [the student], it will be considered insubordination and will result in termination of your employment.” When my client declined to fully comply with the school division’s demand, Abel formally recommended that the school board fire him.  The school board affirmed this recommendation last night at the hearing.

Public schools have no business compelling people to express ideological beliefs that they don’t hold. This isn’t just about a pronoun; this is about forcing someone to endorse an ideology under threat of losing his job. That’s neither legal nor constitutional. We asked the school board to reject the recommendation to fire Mr. Vlaming and instead respect the rights and freedoms of everyone involved. The school board ignored my client’s rights under the Constitution and chose to fire him. We are now evaluating his legal options.