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In landmark victory, VA Supreme Court vindicates high school teacher fired over pronoun policy

Historic ruling affirms broad right to speak according to conscience and beliefs
Peter Vlaming’s school district made him choose between speaking against his conscience or losing the job he loved.

RICHMOND, Va. – In a sweeping victory for free speech and religious freedom, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled Thursday that it would reinstate a lawsuit alleging the West Point School Board violated a high school teacher’s rights protected by Virginia law when it fired him for avoiding the use of personal pronouns to refer to one of his students.

Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys represent Peter Vlaming, who taught French in the district for nearly seven years. The West Point School Board fired Vlaming after he stated he couldn’t in good conscience comply with the superintendent’s demand that he refer to one of his students using pronouns inconsistent with the student’s sex. Vlaming tried to accommodate the student by consistently using the student’s new preferred name and by avoiding the use of pronouns altogether. But school officials ordered him to stop avoiding the use of pronouns to refer to the student, even when the student wasn’t present, and to start using pronouns inconsistent with the student’s sex.

“Peter wasn’t fired for something he said; he was fired for something he couldn’t say. The Virginia Supreme Court rightly agreed that Peter’s case against the school board for violating his rights under the Virginia Constitution and state law should proceed,” said ADF Senior Counsel Chris Schandevel, who argued before the court on behalf of Vlaming. “As a teacher, Peter was passionate about the subject he taught, was well-liked by his students, and did his best to accommodate their needs and requests. But he couldn’t in good conscience speak messages that he doesn’t believe to be true, and no school board or government official can punish someone for that reason.”

In its opinion in Vlaming v. West Point School Board, the Virginia Supreme Court correctly recognized that the Virginia Constitution “seeks to protect diversity of thought, diversity of speech, diversity of religion, and diversity of opinion.” The ruling continued, “Absent a truly compelling reason for doing so, no government committed to these principles can lawfully coerce its citizens into pledging verbal allegiance to ideological views that violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

“The West Point School Board violated that constitutional command when it tried to force Vlaming to endorse the school’s ideological viewpoints on gender identity,” Schandevel explained. “And the Virginia Supreme Court rightly vindicated Vlaming’s right to stand by his convictions in its decision.”

Shawn Voyles, one of nearly 5,000 attorneys in the ADF Attorney Network, is serving as co-counsel on Vlaming’s behalf.

  • Pronunciation guide: Vlaming (VLAM’-ing), Schandevel (SHAN’-deh-vell)

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, parental rights, and the sanctity of life.

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Chris Schandevel
Chris Schandevel
Senior Counsel
Chris Schandevel serves as senior counsel on Alliance Defending Freedom’s Appellate Advocacy Team.