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Public school teacher’s firing wasn’t just about a pronoun, but about intolerance for different beliefs

A pronoun is never just a pronoun. It always points to something bigger. On this one essential fact we can all agree.

That was the starting point in Allison Hope’s recent column. Writing at CNN, Hope sought to discredit Peter Vlaming, a public high school teacher in West Point, Virginia, who was fired by his school board because he wouldn’t contradict his core beliefs.

Specifically, Vlaming’s school board demanded that he affirmatively use the pronouns “he” and “his” in reference to a female student who had recently announced an intent to begin identifying and presenting as a male.

As I’ve gotten to know Vlaming in his suit against the school board, I have seen firsthand why he had built a reputation as an exemplary teacher in his six-plus years at West Point High School. Rather than settle for the bland conjugation charts that cause most students to lose interest in learning a second language, Vlaming put his own creativity to work to make learning an adventure for each of his students.

Having grown up in the United States, Vlaming has told me that he developed his love for French as a high school student. Vlaming had such an immersive, excellent experience learning French as a teenager that it grew into a lifelong passion. After college, Vlaming moved to France for 11 years. That’s where he met and married his wife and started a family of six.

A public teacher in Virginia since 2009, Vlaming has always wanted his students to share his love for language. After all, language forms and shapes ideas. As Vlaming will be quick to tell you — with the same inspiring vigor we all remember from our best teachers — there are some ideas that are so perfectly captured in French that the English equivalent hardly does them justice.

Yet, in the end, Vlaming was fired from the job he loved — even amid vocal student protests in his support — because his school board demanded that he affirmatively use “he” and “him” pronouns to refer to the student.

When one of Vlaming’s students asked to be referred to by a masculine name in the 2018 school year, Vlaming agreed. As my colleagues and I at Alliance Defending Freedom detail in our lawsuit against the school board, Vlaming was willing to use — and consistently did use — the student’s preferred name, and attempted to avoid the use of any pronouns in order to accommodate the student.

Still, none of that was enough for the school board. The school board didn’t appear to care about how well Vlaming treated this student; its actions suggest a crusade to compel conformity. As a French teacher, Vlaming knows the importance of language — including pronouns. As a Christian who believes that biological sex is created by God and fixed from the moment of conception, this is also a matter of deep conviction.

Yet, in the school board’s attempt to force Vlaming to contradict these core beliefs, administrators ordered him to use male pronouns to refer to the student at all times — even when that student wasn’t present.

Accusing Vlaming of “insubordination,” the board fired Vlaming when he stated he couldn’t in good conscience comply.

In fact, the very incident that prompted the school board to issue its ultimatum is a perfect window into its intolerance in firing Vlaming.

Vlaming’s students were buddied up, participating in an exercise where one student would wear virtual reality goggles, and the other would give directions. The student with the VR goggles relied on their partner to guide them around obstacles. It was a fun way to engage the students in a class exercise, but it required the seeing member of each team to stay alert.

During the exercise, one student became distracted, and Vlaming looked up as the student’s partner was about to crash into a glass case along the wall. Instinctively, Vlaming cried out, “Don’t let her hit the wall!”

To the school board, the fact that Vlaming said “her” was “inappropriate” and “unacceptable” — enough to constitute “insubordination” — and set in motion the firing of a respected teacher.

Unfortunately, Vlaming isn’t the only teacher to be punished by increasingly narrow-minded school administrators. In Ohio, a longtime philosophy professor has been sent a written rebuke and is at risk of being fired for the very same reason.

At the University of Louisville, a leading child psychiatrist was demoted and eventually given his walking papers after expressing his views on approaches for youth experiencing gender dysphoria. The university cited Dr. Allan Josephson’s views as the reason for his demotion, and offered no additional rationale when it effectively fired him from a post he had held for more than 15 years. Alliance Defending Freedom represents both of these professors, as well as Vlaming.

The classroom is meant to be a marketplace of ideas, not an assembly line for one type of thought. Yet we’re seeing more and more school administrators sideline free speech rather than striving for true tolerance — which often comes through respectful disagreement.

The Constitution guarantees the freedom to live and work according to a person’s deeply held beliefs. That freedom has always extended to public school teachers like Vlaming. No school policy can override the freedoms guaranteed to every American. The idea that Vlaming must be forced to check his expertise in language and his religious beliefs at the door just because he’s a government employee not only ignores our nation’s rich heritage of making room for people of all faiths; it also gives Vlaming’s superiors the power to impose their beliefs on teachers and students alike.

In a free society like ours, it’s inevitable that we’ll disagree. But that doesn’t make anyone an enemy or villain. As the Supreme Court recognized in Obergefell v. Hodges — the same-sex marriage case — “reasonable and sincere people” hold contradictory views even on the most contentious issues of our day.

As a nation, we’ve always respected each other’s freedom, not just when we agree but when we disagree as well. After all, tolerance is a two-way street. Teaching at a public school shouldn’t mean endorsing an ideology that denies or contradicts your core beliefs.

This article has been modified to reflect the correct location of the school where Peter Vlaming taught. It is located in West Point, Virginia, not Williamsburg.

CNN