Greetings from the LGBTQ front lines, where this article caused a lot of chatter last week. It has all the earmarks of a good culture wars story: transgenderism, sex, the First Amendment, tax dollars and public schools. What more could you want?
What is my journalism issue with this Richmond Times-Dispatch story? The French teacher at the center of this employment drama insists that he is acting on his Christian beliefs — beliefs so vague that readers aren’t told what they are or how they relate to the student.
Here’s a good First Amendment/religious liberty story brewing here, yet readers are told next to nothing about the crucial facts about the role of religion in this case. For example: Try to find a reference to the teacher’s church tradition and its doctrines.
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.
All this is taking place not far from colonial Williamsburg in southeastern Virginia.
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.
Maybe this is evident to the reporter, but what about the teacher’s Christian faith is forbidding him to change pronouns on this student?
Does he feel he is lying? Does he believe that gender is linked to DNA, at conception? I am curious. This case has been percolating for some time, obviously, so the reporter has had some time to ask around.
Some Christians would say it’s their job to call the student whatever he/she wants to be called so I’m curious what makes Vlaming take the other tack. Like I said earlier, it’d help if we knew something about what sort of Christianity he adheres to; what church he attends; something.
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.”
So, why would the teacher’s faith allow him to use the student’s male name but not a male pronoun? Is there some biblical concept being violated by the latter?
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.
For its part, the school district seems to feel that if they don’t take a stand with this teacher, then any number of teachers, who disagree with the whole idea of transitioning genders, might follow suit.
I’ve looked around for other stories on this, but most media are copying what’s out in the Richmond paper or the Virginian Pilot. This Fox News story had an interesting tidbit: Vlaming not only got a BA in French from La Sorbonne during an 11-year stint in France, but he also got a theological degree there. There’s a back story here, obviously.
Obviously this tale resonates on both sides of the aisle: Those who feel the student’s rights were trampled on and others who say compelled speech isn’t free speech. A GoFundMe campaign for the Vlaming family raised $7,850 by Saturday night.
Vlaming only has a few days left to appeal the decision to King William County Circuit Court, so a lot may be depend on whether he’s getting an offers of free legal help from one of several well-known Christian legal societies. Virginia is a non-teacher’s union state, which may also explain why Vlaming is on his own here.
It sounds like this story snuck up on some of the media, as it was clear reporters didn’t have the wherewithal to do much research on the teacher nor search out the student. Obviously there’s many more details left to dig up. The Virginia Gazette ran a piece on Friday’s student walk-out in favor of the fired teacher that had a few more details, but nothing on the religion questions.
I’m hoping the Times-Dispatch manages to sniff out more information as to what Christian teaching this teacher is leaning on to support his war against trans pronouns. If he plans to appeal, he had better have a bunch of them lined up.