School rules on names, pronouns violated teacher’s religious rights

OPINION AND COMMENTARY

Editorials and other Opinion content offer perspectives on issues important to our community and are independent from the work of our newsroom reporters.

A lawyer writes in response to a column that was critical of Derek Schmidt's stance against transgender youth.

A lawyer writes in response to a column that was critical of Derek Schmidt’s stance against transgender youth.

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Editor’s note: the following article was submitted in response to the Sept. 4 column titled: “Derek Schmidt picks the wrong side in the war on pronouns. She should know better.”

Parents are full partners in their child’s education.

That statement shouldn’t be controversial: Parents expect it to be true, and school districts acknowledge it.

And in Geary County schools, it’s found word for word in a board-approved district policy.

But what if it simply wasn’t true? And what if parents weren’t just being neglected as “full partners”? What if they were being actively deceived about their child’s education?

We don’t need to ask “what if.” We only need to look at what happened in Geary County last year.

Pam Ricard was a math teacher at Fort Riley Middle School. She’s been teaching in public schools for decades and had taught in Geary County since 2005.

Last year, however, Pam was suspended, but not for anything she said or did. Rather, Pam was punished for holding to her convictions—and for being unwilling to deceive parents.

The district was trying to force Pam to use a student’s “preferred name” and pronouns that were inconsistent with the student’s gender.

Pam declined. She could not in good conscience deny both biological reality and her deeply held religious beliefs about what it means to be male or female.

The district’s policy said that staff must address students by a “preferred name,” but it also stipulated something else: “USD 475 (Geary County Schools) will not communicate this information to parents unless the student requests the administration or counselor to do so. “

Put another way, Pam was prohibited from providing important information about their child to those parents — who are supposed to be “full partners.”

The district’s policy wasn’t just a violation of Pam’s freedom of speech and religious freedom. It was also a direct affront to the rights of parents.

So, my team at Alliance Defending Freedom, along with Joshua Ney of Kriegshauser Ney Law Group in Olathe, assisted Pam in suing the district for violating her First Amendment rights.

In May, a federal court ruled in her favor. The court first acknowledged that the district conceded that it will not compel Pam to use pronouns inconsistent with a student’s gender, but then the court spoke to the question of deception.

The court found that Pam was likely to prevail on her free exercise of religion claim and temporarily barred the district from forcing Pam to keep parents in the dark about their children.

Shortly after this, the district agreed to settle the case. Their unconstitutional actions ended up needlessly costing taxpayers $95,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees.

As the court wrote in its preliminary injunction order, “it is illegitimate to conceal information from parents for the purpose of frustrating their ability to exercise a fundamental right. … Whether the district likes it or not, that constitutional right includes the right of a parent to have an opinion and to have a say in what a minor child is called and by what pronouns they are referred.”

This is the larger issue at play, and not just in Geary County.

In Harrisonburg City Public Schools in Virginia, teachers have been directed to hide information about a student’s use of different names and pronouns from that student’s parents. And in Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine School District, minor students may change their name and gender pronouns at school without parental consent.

While my colleagues and I have filed lawsuits on behalf of teachers and parents across the country, it shouldn’t take a team of lawyers to get schools to come clean with parents.

The very least schools can do is communicate honestly. Following their own guidance — valuing parents as partners — would be a good place to start.

Tyson Langhofer is senior counsel and director of the Center for Academic Freedom at Alliance Defending Freedom, based in Scottsdale, Arizona.

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