Peter Vlaming believes words have power, a conviction that cost him his job.
Vlaming was fired from his position teaching French at West Point High School in Virginia in 2018 for refusing to call a female student by male pronouns.
Vlaming said he was essentially given the option to either “deny” his own “Christian belief, in order to stay in the school system,” or stand and fight.
“Sooner or later, you have to say, ‘No, I’m not going to do that,’” he said, a decision that cost him his teaching career.
Vlaming sued the school board, and now, the Virginia Supreme Court will hear Vlaming’s case on Friday.
Vlaming and Caleb Dalton, senior counsel at the Alliance Defending Freedom, join “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss the significance of the case and what the court’s decision could mean for the free speech rights of teachers.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Virginia Allen: Peter Vlaming is a former French teacher in the West Point school district of Virginia. He lost his job in 2018 because he refused to use preferred pronouns of a girl in his French class who identified as a boy.
Peter is now in a legal battle with the West Point School Board and Peter and his attorney Caleb Dalton, senior counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom, join us now. Gentlemen, thanks so much for being here.
Peter Vlaming: Pleasure.
Caleb Dalton: Thanks for having us.
Allen: Peter, your story is really one of the first that we started hearing of this happening in schools where a teacher said, “No, I’m not going to call a student by pronouns that differ from their biological sex.” For those that are not familiar with your story, take us back. What happened?
Vlaming: Sure. If I were to sum up, I’ll start with the administration side. My school administration basically said that if I wasn’t going to promote transgender ideology through my speech, through specific speech, that I would be fired. And I said that I couldn’t agree to that.
I had explained to my administration that—I had gone to them to tell them about how I was approaching the fact that my student that I had had for two years, a 14-year-old, had decided to adopt a new identity as a boy. I explained that I was using her new name, her new masculine name. I explained that I had given all of my students a chance to choose new French names in class so that she wouldn’t be singled out.
I avoided using feminine pronouns in her presence, so as to not provoke. My job was to teach French. My job is not to pronounce my views on transgender ideology, but it turns out that the school, by requiring me to use male pronouns for a girl, even when there are no students present—so, if I were just speaking with you, say if you were a colleague of mine, we’re behind closed doors, I could be fired for referring to the student as a girl, not using the pronouns.
It actually even went further than that. I was given a written ultimatum by the superintendent that said if I continued substituting the student’s new name, though it’s a masculine name and I was using it instead of using, when I could use a male pronoun, that too would be grounds for my dismissal, my being fired, which is the definition of the thought police. Because who’s going to say, “Oh, yeah, right now he’s substituting there when he could be using a male pronoun”? So, it was really coercing me to adopt a new ideology about human nature that I wasn’t going to do.
Allen: You were fired in December of 2018. Did your students know why you were fired? Did they just come back to school and all of a sudden Mr. Vlaming is gone?
Vlaming: The spark to the powder keg of this whole thing happened on Halloween four years ago, almost exactly four years ago. I was giving a lesson on the catacombs of Paris, which are tunnels under the city where exhumed remains are stacked up. There are bones that are stacked up in the tunnels and you can go see them. It had to do with cemetery space in Paris at the time. Given that it was Halloween, I thought it would be a kind of neat kind of spooky lesson.
We had a whole set of 20 or 30 virtual reality goggles at the school. And so I did, after giving a lesson, I paired the kids up, the students up, two by two, where one person was wearing a pair of the virtual reality goggles and the other person would guide and make sure they wouldn’t run into anything.
We were out in the hallway outside the classroom where there are less obstacles. You’re taking a virtual tour of the catacombs of Paris. The student, I noticed that the partner of the student in question was not paying attention and the student was about to hit a wall. And so just as a reflex, I called out, “Don’t let her hit the wall.” Her partner, “He used, he said ‘her.’ What are you going to do?” Anyway, it turned into, by the end of the day, I had been put on administrative leave because of a slip-up.
Allen: And how did the students respond to that?
Vlaming: I was on administrative leave for a certain time, then there was a hearing where I was officially fired. And the following day, a good portion of the students actually had a protest. They walked out of school and protested in front of the school. So, there was a lot of support.
Allen: In support of you?
Allen: Now, you decided that you were going to engage in a legal fight over this. Talk a little bit about making that decision.
Vlaming: Especially with the example I gave you of the ultimatum where they said, “Hey, if we even think you’re substituting the new name when you could use a pronoun, that’s grounds for your firing,” I’m like, “This is ridiculous. This is totalitarian. And I know a thing or two about the founding principles of the United States of America and of Virginia, and you can’t do this.”
You can’t compel someone to believe, particularly in an ideology. This has nothing to do with curriculum. This is, “OK. You have to parrot what we say and to show that at least feign belief in this new thing.” And I thought, “No, this is America. We don’t do that here.” It was then that I called out to ADF.
Allen: Caleb, I want to pull you into the conversation here. You work with Alliance Defending Freedom. You’ve represented many, many individuals who have somewhat similar stories to Peter, who are standing up for their religious liberty, who are standing up for free speech. Talk a little bit about the legal battle so far. Where do things stand right now? What’s transpired in Peter’s case against the school board?
Dalton: Sure. I mean, the fundamental issue in Peter’s case is, and the question the court will have to address is, whether public schools can compel a teacher to personally say, “I believe in this ideology,” as a condition for being a public employee.
That’s, I think, something that—we all think about politics. The administrations change. People we may agree with may be in power or somebody we may disagree with may be in power next. And that’s why we have the freedom of speech, freedom of expression, is because we have that fundamental right for things not to change between administrations that we may agree or disagree with.
For example, I think about this, and this is kind of, I think demonstrates what’s at issue. What if the current administration came in and said, “OK, as a condition for receiving funds, you as a public school have to tell all your teachers at the beginning of class that you have to say the words, ‘I believe gender is fluid.'”
OK, well, that’s completely unrelated to everything they’re supposed to teach. You can’t compel somebody to say, “I personally believe that.” But that’s really what they did in this case with Peter, is they said, “You personally have to use words ‘he, him, his,’ that conveys a message,” because words have meaning, despite what Humpty Dumpty said of, “I get to define what words are,” but words actually have meaning.
As a language teacher, Peter knows that kind of more than the rest of us probably, that words convey meaning. They said, “No, you have to use these words that convey a meaning that it is a lie.” Peter can see observable truth. He knows what they were telling him to say was not true. And they said, “You have to say something you know not to be true in order to be a public employee.”
… It kind of relates back to your question of, what do we see in the legal landscape Unfortunately, we see a lot of similar policies being implemented across the country, similar to what they’re doing to Peter right now.
We represented a teacher in Kansas recently who was suspended for using a last name to refer to a student that identified as transgender. She also was facing a policy there where they said, “Not only do you have to adhere to what these middle school students are telling you they want to be called any particular day, you’re not allowed to tell their parents about it either.”
And that’s, unfortunately, also something that we’re seeing crop up around the country as these policies—telling teachers they have to not only lie to students, they have to lie to their parents as well.
Allen: So, the Virginia Supreme Court is hearing this case on Friday. What specifically are you-all asking the court for?
Dalton: We’re asking the court basically to reinstate his case and to rule on three specific issues, on a broader level. The claims relate to free speech, to free exercise of religion, and to due process. Just the right to even know what regulations are being put on you. Because at the time, the school board didn’t even have any policies about pronouns. They just made it up along the way. That’s unfair in the first place, just to subject him to that. But even more, the bigger, broader principles at play here are, can the government compel you to personally affirm this type of message?
We believe the answer’s clearly no. In the United States of America and Virginia, the right of free speech protects your ability not to be forced to speak this message that you don’t agree with.
I mean, you think about it even, and a lot of your listeners are probably very patriotic, but one of the seminal cases on compelled speech, it was in the school context where some Jehovah’s Witnesses who believed it was wrong to swear, said, “I can’t in good conscience say the Pledge of Allegiance in school.” And the school said, “No, you have to say the Pledge of Allegiance or you’ll be suspended.”
The Supreme Court said, “No. Even good speech that we may agree with, you can’t compel somebody to speak that message. That’s part of what makes America America, is we have this freedom to disagree.”
And that’s really at core what happened here, is, Peter didn’t try to compel anybody to affirm his beliefs. All he’s asking for is a right not to be compelled to say what somebody else believes. And that’s what we’re asking in the court to hold, is that the government can’t compel you to say something is true that you know is a lie.
Allen: Peter, how has your life just personally kind of changed and been affected since you were let go in 2018? What has shifted in your world?
Vlaming: Oh, thank you for asking the question. At the time, I was in the middle of a master’s degree in school administration, public school administration, at College of William and Mary. My plans, my career track, was to continue investing in and following public school education. All that was derailed.
Once this happened at the school, I was a bit, I guess you could say blacklisted regarding other employment opportunities. There were other French positions available in the area, but they didn’t want to touch me with a 10-foot pole, though I have excellent qualifications as a French teacher. But I did finish my degree in education.
But since then, it’s been four years since this happened. As a family, we have to make some choices: What are we going to do? Since, I’ve gone into another line of work.
Allen: Now, for those who would sort of question and say, “Was it really worth it? I mean, why not just say ‘he’?”—you’ve had to readjust your career, your life, make moves. Why stand and fight?
Vlaming: There are some hills that are worth dying on and this is one of them. When you have your superiors who are telling you, “OK, you have to promote this with your speech in order to stay here” and it contradicts your core belief in who we are as human beings—I’m a Christian and I do believe the biblical account of how we were made and who we are. We’re integral beings. We’re body, soul, and spirit, and that we were created man and woman. And so to be told that I must deny that very basic fundamental belief, Christian belief, in order to stay in the school system, sooner or later you have to say, “No, I’m not going to do that. There are things that are more important.”
And what is the message I’m conveying to this generation of kids by going along with this? What am I telling them? I’m there to teach the kids, to be a blessing to them. This is not one of those things. This is not promoting, this is not a blessing. I was happy to say, “Listen, we have the right to believe how we want to believe. The student can believe how the student wants to believe. People within the administration of the school can believe how they want to believe. But so can I.”
There’s a reciprocity, there’s a mutual tolerance. The true tolerance. “OK, we don’t agree, but that’s OK. We’re going to continue to move forward without agreeing on this.” But then when you start saying, “No, we all have to, you have to show your allegiance to this,” no, that’s one of those where you say, “No, I have to answer to a higher authority. At the end of the day, at the end of my life, I have to answer to a higher authority.”
Allen: Thank you for sharing. Caleb, as the Virginia Supreme Court hears this case, what are you expecting from the court?
Dalton: Well, we know that justices are very thoughtful and that they’re concerned about the application, proper application, of the Virginia Constitution. The unique thing about Virginia’s Constitution, our protections for religious liberty were written before the First Amendment was even crafted. Virginia actually served in some ways as the model for religious liberty throughout the Colonies at the time.
There’s a deep, rich history there, and I think the justices are aware of that, and I think and believe they will hold that that history shows.
Even if you look at the text, the specific text of the Virginia Constitution says that someone can’t be diminished in their civil capacity because of their religious beliefs. They were concerned with tests being put in place that would exclude you because of your religious beliefs.
It goes exactly to what we’re looking at here, where the school district said, “You have to affirm with your words this religious belief that you know to not be true, or else you can’t be employed.”
So, the Virginia Constitution protects the ability of teachers to be able to participate, to teach, and yet not be forced to personally endorse this ideology. That’s what we’re hopeful that they hold and that they affirm that right for all Virginians, whether they agree with Peter or whether they don’t agree, because that’s what freedom is all about. It’s for everyone.
Allen: I know, as you mentioned earlier, that we have some other similar cases that are playing out right now. Of course, in Virginia, there is the case of Tanner Cross. How could the ruling in Peter’s case affect some of these other similar cases?
Dalton: It could have a great impact, not only on Tanner Cross’ case and Monica [Gill] and Kim [Wright] and Loudoun County—that a lot of your listeners have probably heard of, I’m sure you’ve covered it—as well as we actually have another case in Harrisonburg, Virginia, as well, challenging a policy there that is not only regarding pronouns, like I mentioned, but also the parental rights issue that we talked about before, where the school is telling teachers, “You have to deceive parents.”
We’re hopeful that a strong ruling in this case will impact those as well and protect the rights of all teachers in Virginia.
Allen: Peter, before I let you all go, I would just love to ask you what you would want to say to your students. I’m sure that many of the students that you taught French to are following your case. Obviously, the fact that they did a walkout and protested to support you means you were a well-loved teacher. What would you want them to know? What would you want to say to them?
Vlaming: Well, that I’m very grateful for their support. There were some really courageous students that stood up there, stood up and counted. I think I may have mentioned earlier, the walkout that happened the day after I was let go, there was a protest where a bunch of the students—they organized that themselves. I’m very proud of them.
What I would hope is that through this, if anything, by my example that, yeah, sometimes you pay a price to do what’s right. Sometimes you pay, and that’s the way it goes. But it’s still, that’s what’s right and that’s what needs to happen.
Allen: Peter Vlaming and Caleb Dalton, senior Counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom. Thank you both for your time. We really appreciate you joining.
Vlaming: Thank you.
Dalton: Thanks so much for having us.
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