Former teacher Peter Vlaming. Picture: NBC News
Former teacher Peter Vlaming. Picture: NBC News

'It's telling a lie': Teacher sacked after six-word outburst

PETER Vlaming was supervising students during an activity last year when he yelled out, "Don't let her hit the wall!" The next day, he was suspended.

The French teacher at West Point High School in Virginia had accidentally referred to the transgender student using the female pronoun, rather than their preferred male pronouns "he, him and his".

It was October 31 and students had been divided into pairs, with one wearing virtual reality goggles and the second giving instructions to prevent them running into objects.

Mr Vlaming noticed the student was about to walk into the wall because their partner wasn't paying attention, so he called out - immediately realising his mistake. It was the last straw for the student, who withdrew from his class.

"Mr Vlaming, you may have your religion, but you need to respect who I am," he told the teacher. Mr Vlaming reported the incident to the Principal, who told him, "You know what you do to diffuse a situation like that? You say, 'I'm sorry, I meant to say him.'"

The school sacked Mr Vlaming in December, citing his repeated refusal to refer to the student using male pronouns. Now he's suing the school district, saying his religious and free speech rights were violated.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in the King William County Circuit Court, names the West Point School Board, Division Superindendent Laura Abel, West Point High School Principal Jonathan Hochman and Assistant Principal Suzanne Aunspach as defendants.

"Defendants gave Mr Vlaming an ultimatum: use male pronouns for this female student or lose your job," the complaint says. "Mr Vlaming could not violate his conscience. And it cost him his job."

Mr Vlaming, it says, "sincerely believes that referring to a female as a male by using an objectively male pronoun is telling a lie". School authorities tried to compel him to "take sides in an ongoing public debate regarding gender dysphoria and use pronouns that express an objectively untrue ideological message", it adds.

"Mr Vlaming believes both as a matter of human anatomy and religious conviction that sex is biologically fixed in each person and cannot be changed regardless of a person's feelings or desires," it says. "Saying 'he', 'him' or 'his' objectively expresses the message that a person is, or the speaker believes them to be, male."

The suit claims rather than use male pronouns he instead called the student by his preferred masculine name and avoided using pronouns altogether.

That didn't satisfy school authorities, who demanded he use male pronouns to refer to the student in all situations, with the Assistant Principal telling him his "personal religious beliefs end at the school door".

He was warned he would face disciplinary action if he refused to comply. The October incident was the first time he had used the incorrect pronoun in the student's presence - but it was also the final straw for the school.

"I can't think of a worse way to treat a child than what was happening," Mr Hochman said at a school board meeting, according to the Associated Press.

The school board unanimously voted to sack Mr Vlaming at a packed five-hour meeting in December. The next day, around 100 students staged a walkout for the popular teacher holding signs reading, "Men are men and women are women" and "You can't impose delusion onto us", NBC News reported.

"Peter went out of his way to accommodate this student as he does all his students. His school fired him because he wouldn't contradict his core beliefs," Caleb Dalton, lawyer with conservative legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, said in a statement.

"The school board didn't care how well Peter treated this student. It was on a crusade to compel conformity. He works hard to make his students feel welcomed. In his French class, he always calls his students by the name they choose. He even used the student's preferred masculine name and was willing to avoid using pronouns in the student's presence. He just didn't want to be forced to use a pronoun that offends his conscience. That's entirely reasonable, and it's his constitutionally protected right. Tolerance, after all, is a two-way street."

In a statement, Mr Vlaming said he was "saddened that West Point Public Schools wouldn't work with me to reach a happy situation for everyone on this matter so that we could all continue on with learning in mutual respect".

A spokesperson for West Point Schools told The Washington Post it denied any wrongdoing and would "vigorously defend" the claim.

"West Point Public Schools' primary focus is on students, staff, and instruction and we will continue to direct our energy toward maintaining a high-quality learning environment in our schools," the spokesperson said.

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