RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — On Friday, Nov. 4, the Virginia Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of a teacher from West Point who was fired after refusing to address a trans student by male pronouns.

A King William County Circuit Court already dismissed seven of Peter Vlaming’s nine claims against the West Point School Board without hearing arguments, essentially finding that Vlaming had no cause to bring them at all.

The decision before the Supreme Court is not whether Vlaming or the school board are in the right, but whether the circuit court was wrong to dismiss Vlaming’s claim on the basis of the facts presented in his and the school board’s initial filings.

What Do You Leave at the Door?

In just under an hour of arguments, attorneys with the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) — a conservative Christian legal group with anti-LGBT positions that represents Vlaming — and the school board laid out their cases before the justices of the court.

The ADF argued, in part, that Vlaming had accommodated the student by no longer using pronouns for any students in his class, instead allowing them to pick “French” names — the class in question was a French class — and referring to students in that class exclusively using their French and English names, including the masculine name chosen by the trans student.

“No public employee should be required to violate their sincerely held beliefs on religion unless not doing so would violate the constitutional rights of someone on the other side,” the ADF attorney said in their opening argument.

But the school district argued that though Vlaming’s ‘accommodation’ avoided explicitly misgendering the student, because he adopted it only for the class in question it “had the effect of singling out the student in a way that was noticed by the student and his peers.”

“A teacher refusing to use pronouns in an effort to not comply with the non-discrimination policy distorts the pedagogical process in a way that makes it obvious to everyone there exactly what he’s doing,” the board’s attorney said in opening arguments to the court.

Balancing Act

The ADF, meanwhile, in both oral arguments and their briefs to the court, put little emphasis on the question of whether Vlaming’s actions violated the student’s equal protection rights. Instead, they posed the case as a test of freedom of religion and speech in the classroom, much like mid-century cases that found it was unconstitutional for schools to mandate prayer and the pledge of allegiance.

“We believe that compelled pronoun usage is the compelled flag salute debate of our time,” the ADF attorney said.

But the school board — and the ACLU, which filed an amicus brief — argued that when Vlaming took on a role as teacher, he agreed to respect the reasonable, legal policies put forward by the school board. This included a rule that teachers should respect trans students’ pronouns.

“To be clear, the commonwealth of Virginia recognizes this student as male,” the school board’s attorney said. “He underwent a gender transition, his name has been legally changed, the marker on his birth certificate has been changed. I think Mr. Vlaming’s suggestion that he can disagree with that conclusion on the basis of his free speech or free exercise rights goes too far.”

If the Virginia Supreme Court does decide to overturn the lower court’s ruling, it will be only a partial victory for Vlaming, whose case would return to the lower court to be litigated in full.