French teacher Peter Vlaming, who had taught since 2012 at West Point High School in West Point, Virginia, was fired in December 2018. (Photo: Alliance Defending Freedom)
A French teacher at West Point High School in West Point, Virginia, was fired for not using pronouns preferred by a transgender student.
Should people be forced to contradict their core beliefs just to keep a job? Can you be compelled to speak a message you don’t believe in?
Caleb Dalton, a counsel with the Christian legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom who represents the teacher, Peter Vlaming, joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss the issues involved.
Rachel del Guidice: I’m joined today on “The Daily Signal Podcast” by Caleb Dalton, who serves as legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom. Caleb, it’s great to have you on “The Daily Signal Podcast.”
Caleb Dalton: Rachel, thanks so much for having me.
Guidice: Well, it’s great to have you with us. You represent Peter Vlaming, who’s a French teacher who was fired for using the pronoun that was not preferred by a transgender student. And The Daily Signal, for those who haven’t seen it, we just released a mini documentary on Mr. Vlaming’s story, which we’ll include in the show notes.
But for those, Caleb, who are not familiar with Mr. Vlaming’s story, can you tell us about it?
Dalton: Sure. Peter Vlaming has been teaching French at West Point High School in Williamsburg, Virginia, for over seven years, at least he had back in 2018 when this all started.
He had a student that he had already been teaching French for a while, and she came to him and expressed an interest in transitioning her identity to a male identity, even though she’s a female student.
Peter met with her and her mom asked what he could do just to make that transition work in his classroom. And one of the things they requested was that she be able to pick a new name in French.
In French class, they all use French names in order to be part of the cultural inculcation there of really absorbing the culture. So they all have French names.
And what Peter first did was he just allowed the entire class to pick new French names so that the student wouldn’t feel singled out as she was changing her name to more of a traditional, male-type name.
But what Peter couldn’t do was to call a girl a boy using pronouns because those do identify a specific trait of maleness or femaleness, and that wasn’t very difficult to do it. It wasn’t very difficult to accommodate because when you’re talking with somebody in person, you don’t actually use a third-person pronoun. You don’t say “he” or “she.” When you’re talking to somebody, you actually say “you” or you use their name.
So Peter used the student’s name, her preferred name, and everything went fine for several months until an incident in October kicked off a series of events that led to his firing.
Del Guidice: From a legal standpoint, Caleb, thanks for bringing us through what happened in Mr. Vlaming’s classroom and in those days and weeks leading up to that situation. From a legal standpoint, can you walk us through what Peter’s case is?
Dalton: Absolutely. I think to understand his case you have to understand a little bit more about what happened after that October incident and what happened in that case is a student came to him and said, “I heard that you’ve been referring to me to other people, that you’ve used the female pronoun.”
Now, Peter had been avoiding using the female pronoun when she was around just to try to respect her wishes and just using her name, like we talked about. So she said, “I had heard that.”
They had a discussion about how he’s trying to accommodate her and everything turned out fine until the next day [when] they were doing a virtual reality experiment, actually.
So they were going through the French catacombs using virtual reality goggles. And she had the goggles on, she was walking down the hallway, and was about to hit the wall. And he called out, “Don’t let her hit the wall,” to her partner there who was supposed to be guiding her.
And when he said “her,” he accidentally used the female pronoun. It was unintentional. And yet the student got really upset, went and complained about it.
He got called in and the principal and vice principal and, ultimately, the superintendent and school board gave him an ultimatum. They said, “You have to affirmatively use the male pronoun to refer to this student. You may not avoid using the male pronoun. You can’t use her name instead or else you’ll be fired.” And Peter couldn’t do that.
… He went out of his way to accommodate this student. But the school board wouldn’t give an inch as far as any kind of accommodation for his beliefs or viewpoints or any kind of reasonable middle ground. And that ultimately led to his firing.
Del Guidice: On that note, Caleb, did [the] West Point High School administration … act inappropriately by firing Peter?
Dalton: Absolutely. They violated Peter’s constitutional rights under … the First Amendment, but state law also provides similar protections. The First Amendment, both free speech and free exercise. And there’s other statutory protections in Virginia that don’t allow a school board to fire somebody simply because they can’t violate their conscience in this manner.
This is about way more than a pronoun. It’s about what the pronoun actually means. And to require Peter to actually say these words, to use the male pronoun, is to require him to affirm a belief in something that’s not true. And he simply cannot do that in good conscience.
Reasonable accommodation would have been easy. It would have been to allow him to continue to use the student’s name when she is around to avoid using the female pronoun just to avoid offending her.
But to go further than that, like the school board did, to say, affirmatively, that you must use this pronoun or you will be fired—the school board didn’t care how well Peter treated the student. It was really on a crusade to compel conformity to their viewpoints and that’s wrong.
Del Guidice: On that note, Caleb, of the pronouns, did this school even have a pronoun policy?
Dalton: They don’t have a policy about pronouns. Obviously, they have a general policy about discrimination and harassment and that’s really what they accused him of, which is just completely ridiculous.
Peter, in this case, went out of his way to treat the student as better than anybody could ask for. He had the whole French class pick new names, he was using her preferred name. He went out of his way to accommodate her.
There’s no policy at the school that said you have to use whatever pronoun anybody tells you they want to be called by. It’s simply something that they made up and applied to him in a way that ultimately led to him losing his job, simply because he couldn’t violate his conscience.
Del Guidice: CBS had reported that even though he wouldn’t use the student’s preferred pronouns, like you mentioned, Caleb, he would use the student’s new name in French class that she had requested. Why don’t you think that that was enough for the school?
Dalton: It should have been. And that’s what a reasonable accommodation would have been. Tolerance is a two-way street here and Peter respected this student and her parents’ rights to believe what they want to believe about her identity.
All he was asking is not to be compelled to express a belief in their own faith and the student or the parent’s faith about her identity. All he was asking is for the same respect in return and the school board refused to give it.
If we want freedom for ourselves, we have to be able to extend it to those that we disagree with. That’s the core of the idea of free speech.
Free speech wouldn’t matter if we all agreed with everybody else’s expression. It only comes into play when we disagree even very strongly with something that somebody wants to say or something that maybe they’re not saying, and that’s when the protection of the First Amendment or the idea of free speech really comes into play.
And the school board, in this case, simply refused to extend the same tolerance to Peter that he extended to the student in this case.
Del Guidice: Looking at past cases that the Supreme Court has heard, are there any similar cases, Caleb, that could be seen as similar to what Mr. Vlaming is going through? And how has the Supreme Court ruled on those?
Dalton: The Supreme Court has held fundamental to this idea that you can’t compel somebody to speak a message that violates their conscience.
A very interesting case that they decided back during World War II was a case on behalf of some Jehovah’s Witnesses students and the school board there required students to say the Pledge of Allegiance and to salute the flag.
And that may seem very commonplace for many who grew up in that time. And especially during World War II, during the height of patriotism, we were fighting the Nazis. People were not happy about that, that these students would say, “No, we can’t salute the flag,” or, “We can’t say the Pledge of Allegiance because of our religious faith.”
Yet the Supreme Court held that no official can compel somebody to speak a message that violates their faith. And those were for students and the same principle to teachers.
The school board can’t require a teacher to stand up and affirm and recite a creed. And in the same way, they can’t compel a teacher to express a belief in this ideology. It’s completely unrelated to his class curriculum.
This is an ideology regarding gender identity and the school board has said, “You have to affirm this ideology or you’ll be fired. There’s no compromise, no middle ground. Say these words or you’ll be fired.” And that’s what happened to Peter.
Del Guidice: As you mentioned … earlier in our conversation, … Mr. Vlaming never wanted to antagonize a student or embarrass or frustrate her in any way, that’s why he chose to use the name that she had requested. And we’ve both gotten to spend time with him on different occasions.
When I was getting ready to work on this documentary, I was able to spend some time with him. And I would like to talk about for a minute just him as a person.
… I know he has been framed in particular lights. And just from your experience, even working with Mr. Vlaming and hearing his story and representing him, I guess, what has that been like? Or what are you able to share about the person and the teacher that you’ve observed that he is?
Dalton: Peter, he is such a loving man. He has dedicated his life to service. When he was at the school, not only was he the French teacher, he was also a bus driver. He helped coach sports. He looked into helping start a wrestling team, as a former wrestler.
But he’s also a former pastor. He is a deacon in his church. He helped start their current church that they attend. And he has a heart for people. He loves all his students. And he recognizes though that, at school, as a teacher, his job is not to enforce his ideology on his students. And he didn’t do that.
What happened to him here was he was simply asking for accommodation of his beliefs, not to say these words, and the school refused to extend that same tolerance to him that he extended to his students.
He cares about his students. In fact, the student in this case was, I think, one of the class favorites—really good at French, Peter loved teaching her. And he respected her right, her parents’ right to believe what they want to believe.
That’s really all he was asking in return is that same right to believe what he does about gender identity and not to express that there’s anything different than that.
And everybody should be on board with that because public schools shouldn’t be requiring teachers to abandon their beliefs. The government in general should not be requiring any of us to speak words that violate our conscience.
Del Guidice: Well, Caleb, in your line of work in law, how often do you know or do you suspect this issue is? How widespread is it where teachers and even others in different professions have faced similar situations such as Mr. Vlaming’s?
Dalton: It’s difficult to quantify that just anecdotally. I know Peter’s not the only one.
There are other cases being litigated and we hear of other cases in the news and you see jurisdictions like New York City who’s passed very restrictive laws across the board that apply to pretty much all businesses, public accommodations there requiring them to use preferred pronouns with pretty heavy fines if you don’t.
So this is certainly an issue that’s emerging within our society. And it’s one that’s difficult for a lot of people because we’re a compassionate society and we feel for those who are hurting, but at some point we have to draw a line and say, “Even within that compassion, we are not going to compel a teacher or another employee.”
The government can’t come in and say, “Look, you have to affirm this ideology, or you are not worthy of a place in our society.”
Peter, that was his career. He has kids that he’s trying to feed. And he now can’t get a job in public education because of what they did to him.
He went out of his way to accommodate this student. And they did not extend him one inch of accommodation for his beliefs. This isn’t that type of society. It’s not a tolerant society that ruins a man’s career when he is simply trying to abide by his conscience like this.
Del Guidice: Caleb, you mentioned Peter’s inability to teach right now and I’ve gotten countless emails and even comments on the mini documentary that went up. People asking, “What is Peter doing now? Is he teaching? Can he teach again? Does he have employment?”
So are you able to share anything about that, what he is doing and if there is potentially a path to teach down the road?
Dalton: He has applied for other public school positions and he’s been turned down every time so far. He has gotten a job in another field just in order to provide for his family. And frankly, that’s been rather difficult for him after being fired like this.
So he is able to put food on the table right now, but he would love to be able to teach. It’s … part of his passion. That’s who he is. He’s a great teacher.
I love some of the pictures that you showed in the documentary, showing how he really engages his students, whether it’s helping them cook up French cuisine or the immersive experience of the VR goggles of exploring the French catacombs and really immersing themselves in the culture of the French people and not just learning the rote issues of the French language.
So he’s a great teacher. He would love to be doing that again. And we hope as a result of this case, that he will be able to in the future.
Del Guidice: As we look down the road into other fields that people are in—doctors, nurses, teachers like Peter Vlaming and so many others—what kind of implications do similar scenarios have for professionals in all these different fields? And could this be something that we see more of and more of?
Dalton: I don’t think it will be limited to the school context. It has come up several times in the school context already, but I think we’ll see this issue popping up more and more as this ideology spreads and as people work out in their own minds how we are to deal with this issue.
And I think the bottom line for people of all faiths, of all beliefs, or of no faith, should be that freedom wins in the end. Because freedom of speech, if it means anything, it means the freedom not to speak messages that violate our core beliefs.
And whether you agree with what Peter did or not, what you should agree with is that the government shouldn’t be able to tell you the words that you have to speak, especially when they’re ideologically charged as they were in this particular situation.
We should be able to come to reasonable accommodations on both sides and show that tolerance truly is a two-way street, not a one-way ratchet like the school board tried to make it in this case.
Del Guidice: Well, Caleb, thank you so much for joining us on “The Daily Signal Podcast” and sharing about Peter Vlaming’s case. It’s been great to have you with us.
Dalton: Rachel, thanks so much for having me.
Rachel del Guidice is a congressional reporter for The Daily Signal. She is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, Forge Leadership Network, and The Heritage Foundation’s Young Leaders Program. Send an email to Rachel.