By Graham Moomkaw Richmond Times-Dispatch
Dec 6, 2018
WEST POINT — A Virginia high school teacher was fired Thursday for refusing to use a transgender student’s new pronouns, a case believed to be the first of its kind in the state.
After a four-hour hearing, the West Point School Board voted 5-0 to terminate Peter Vlaming, a French teacher at West Point High School who resisted administrators’ orders to use male pronouns to refer to a ninth-grade student who had undergone a gender transition. The board met in closed session for nearly an hour before the vote.
Like a similar transgender rights case in nearby Gloucester County that eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, Vlaming’s situation could present a novel legal case as public bodies continue to grapple with how to reconcile anti-discrimination policies with the rights of religious employees.
The high school in West Point, a town in King William County about an hour east of Richmond, has about 265 students.
Vlaming, 47, who had taught at the school for almost seven years after spending more than a decade in France, told his superiors his Christian faith prevented him from using male pronouns for a student he saw as female.
The student’s family informed the school system of the transition over the summer. Vlaming said he had the student in class the year before when the student identified as female.
Vlaming agreed to use the student’s new, male name. But he tried to avoid using any pronouns — he or him, and she or her — when referring to the student. The student said that made him feel uncomfortable and singled out.
Administrators sided with the boy, telling Vlaming he could not treat his transgender pupil differently than he treats others.
“That discrimination then leads to creating a hostile learning environment. And the student had expressed that. The parent had expressed that,” said West Point schools Superintendent Laura Abel. “They felt disrespected.”
School administrators recommended that Vlaming be fired, saying he had violated the school system’s nondiscrimination and harassment policies.
“Does this board expect its employees to follow its policies or not?” said attorney Stacy Haney, who was representing the school district.
The nondiscrimination policies were updated a year ago to include protections for gender identity, but Vlaming’s lawyer, Shawn Voyles, said there was no specific guidance on the use of gender pronouns.
Even as a public employee, Voyles said, Vlaming has constitutional rights of his own.
“One of those rights that is not curtailed is to be free from being compelled to speak something that violates your conscience,” Voyles said.