“[W]e are here today because a specific worldview is being imposed upon me,” said West Point High School French teacher Peter Vlaming at a public hearing in early December. In fact, Vlaming was at the hearing that day because the West Point Public School (WPPS) District in Virginia had placed him on administrative leave in October, after he continually refused on religious grounds to use a transgender student’s pronouns. This, the district determined, violated its policy against discrimination on the basis of gender identity.
The school board unanimously voted to terminate Vlaming at the hearing. “As detailed during the course of the public hearing, Mr. Vlaming was recommended for termination due to his insubordination and repeated refusal to comply with directives made to him by multiple WPPS administrators,” said West Point Schools Superintendent Laura Abel in a statement shared with local outlet 8News.
Students rallied in support of Vlaming at the hearing and online, where a petition supporting his reinstatement has gathered nearly 3,000 signatures. And on West Point High School’s Facebook page, parents and students alike posted vitriolic comments in support of Vlaming and against the school board. “I will come into agreement with your prayers for Mr. Vlaming and this wicked schoolboard,” said one commenter to another. “I hope they get sued and shut down until they respect Christian rights and agree with even science and biology which proves men are men and women are women. This is so outrageous.”
Vlaming is not alone—neither in his insistence that using a student’s pronoun violates his religious beliefs, nor in facing disciplinary action for doing so.
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In early 2018, Nicholas Meriwether received a written warning from his workplace Shawnee State University in Ohio after refusing to use a student’s correct pronouns. In November, represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), Meriwether sued Shawnee State in federal court, claiming that the disciplinary action violated the professor’s state and federal rights to free speech and freedom of religion. In the complaint, Meriwether asserts that the university’s policies on discrimination and pronoun use violate his sincerely held beliefs that “God created human beings as either male or female, that this gender is fixed in each person from the moment of conception, and that it cannot be changed, regardless of an individual’s feelings or desires.”
Also found in the complaint is a detailed history of Meriwether’s disagreement with Shawnee State University around the implementation of guidance issued in 2016 by President Barack Obama’s Department of Education and Department of Justice. The guidance clarified how schools receiving federal funds should interpret Title IX’s prohibition on sex discrimination to also prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity. (The two departments jointly rescinded this guidance in early 2017, leaving schools, school districts, universities, colleges, and their students unsure of how best to protect transgender students under Title IX.) Meriwether was resistant to adhering to the guidance and alleges he felt hostility from the heads of the College of Arts and Sciences at Shawnee State.
The framework of “hostility” is not new to ADF. In fact, it was the basis upon which another of their clients, Jack Phillips, won his case against the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which found him in violation of Colorado law for refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. “[F]ew cake artists (or other expressive professionals, for that matter),” said ADF in its brief to the Supreme Court, “will decline to celebrate same-sex marriages because anyone who follows that path must be willing to endure steep market costs and the hostile opposition that people like Phillips have experienced.” And the Court agreed, holding that “the Commission’s treatment of Phillips’ case violated the State’s duty under the First Amendment not to base laws or regulations on hostility to a religion or religious viewpoint.”
Highlighting that distinction is important. It wasn’t Colorado’s law against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in places of public accommodation that the Supreme Court found in violation of the Constitution, it was how the Colorado Commission on Civil Rights went about enforcing that law. As Justice Kennedy said in the syllabus to his opinion, “The State’s interest could have been weighed against Phillips’ sincere religious objections in a way consistent with the requisite religious neutrality that must be strictly observed. But the official expressions of hostility to religion in some of the commissioners’ comments were inconsistent with that requirement, and the Commission’s disparate consideration of Phillips’ case compared to the cases of the other bakers suggests the same.”
Framing religious freedom as a battle of civility dilutes its importance in the lives of people of faith across the country. And it adds to the arsenal of organizations like Alliance Defending Freedom, who are now including the hostility argument in many of their cases opposing civil and human rights for LGBTQ people, including the continuing case of a florist who refused to serve a same-sex couple and in ADF’s attacks on former New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.
But hostility to faith isn’t the only argument that Vlaming and Meriwether are asserting, either directly or indirectly. They are both claiming something very specific: that their religion forbids them from using a trans person’s correct pronouns and that compelling them to do so would violate their freedom of speech and freedom of religion. First Amendment jurisprudence is a balancing act. The court should balance the government’s interest in passing laws with a person’s right to act a certain way. In cases involving laws that prohibit discrimination on the bases of sexual orientation and gender identity, state and federal courts are more and more frequently reinforcing the idea that LGBTQ people’s rights and dignity are important government interests—important enough to compel an instructor to use someone’s pronouns in the classroom or face professional consequences.
But with ADF and other legal groups changing tactics and testing the limits of courts’ tolerance of hostility, and as President Donald Trump continues to pack federal courts with hyperconservative judges and justices, we may see an increase in cases of individuals refusing to honor the very identities of LGBTQ people, asserting their right to do so, and framing any opposition thereto as hostility. If that happens, conservatives may find yet another way to use religion as a way to deny LGBTQ people basic rights.