Peter Vlaming argued that referring to his transgender student using male pronouns violated his religious beliefs

By Rachel DeSantis
October 02, 2019 11:40 AM
Peter Vlaming
Shelby Lum/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP

A Virginia high school teacher who was fired last year for not referring to a transgender student by his preferred pronoun has filed suit against the school district, claiming his firing violated his rights to free speech and to exercise his religion.

Peter Vlaming filed suit against the West Point School Board in King William County on Monday, alleging that standing firm in not “violat[ing] his conscience” had “cost him his job.”

Vlaming worked as a French teacher at West Point High School, and in early 2018, a female student he’d taught for two years came out as transgender, according to the lawsuit. Vlaming says he did all he could to accommodate the student, and used the student’s preferred name, which was traditionally male, but avoided the use of pronouns.

According to the suit, that was not good enough for the school board, who demanded Vlaming use male pronouns or risk being fired.

Vlaming, who worked with the district for seven years, met with the student, his mother, and a guidance counselor to gain a better understanding of the situation, but was accused in October of referring to the student as “her” behind the student’s back, the suit alleges.

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The teacher met with school administration to discuss the issue, and argued that referring to the student as male “was against his religious beliefs,” but was repeatedly told that using female pronouns was against school policy, according to the suit.

The tipping point came in October, during a lesson in which the students wore virtual-reality goggles and walked around the classroom. When the student seemed as though he was going to crash into a wall, Vlaming yelled, “Don’t let her hit the wall,” Vlaming’s suit claims.

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After the incident, the student — who told Vlaming after class that the teacher must “respect who I am” regardless of his religious beliefs — withdrew from the French class and Vlaming was suspended shortly after, the suit says.

In December, he was fired for violating the school board’s policies against discrimination and harassment, though the lawsuit argues that the policies make no mention of pronouns, and do not define “nondiscrimination,” “gender identity” or “religion.”

“That discrimination then leads to creating a hostile learning environment. And the student had expressed that. The parent had expressed that,” West Point schools Superintendent Laura Abel told the Associated Press at the time. “They felt disrespected.”

Vlaming, who is seeking $1 million in damages, claimed in the suit that he has been unable to find work since his firing.

A spokesperson for West Point Schools tells PEOPLE in a statement it denied any liability to Vlaming and would “vigorously defend” against his claims.

“West Point Public Schools’ primary focus is on students, staff, and instruction, and we will continue to direct our energy toward maintaining a high-quality learning environment in our schools,” the spokesperson said.

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An attorney for Vlaming, who is being represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, argued in a statement that the school fired him because “he wouldn’t contradict his core beliefs.”

“The school board didn’t care how well Peter treated this student,” said Caleb Dalton. “It was on a crusade to compel conformity … He even used the student’s preferred masculine name and was willing to avoid using pronouns in the student’s presence. He just didn’t want to be forced to use a pronoun that offends his conscience. That’s entirely reasonable, and it’s his constitutionally protected right. Tolerance, after all, is a two-way street.”

Vlaming, meanwhile, said in a statement he was upset by the school’s handling of the situation.

“I’m saddened that West Point Public Schools wouldn’t work with me to reach a happy situation for everyone on this matter so that we could all continue on with learning in mutual respect,” he said.

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