RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- A bill that is close to becoming law would create a statewide policy for the treatment of transgender students in public schools.
Supporters say these standards will help keep students safe but critics argue they’ll be used to suppress religious beliefs.
Michael and Lisa Harrah came to the state Capitol on Tuesday to advocate for their transgender daughter. Michael said he has been a Presbyterian elder for 25 years and they both describe themselves as people of faith.
“God has created our child just like everybody else,” Lisa said. “Our child is loved by God.”
The Harrah’s didn’t want to name their daughter to protect her privacy.
They said she first asked them to begin using female pronouns when she announced her transition two years ago.
“It’s so important,” Lisa said. “You’re recognizing them and saying that ‘I see you, I care about you and I understand.'”
A House bill that passed in the Senate Monday could give public schools guidance on how to identify transgender students. It would also address how to prevent bullying and how to handle the use of school facilities like locker rooms.
The bill calls on the Virginia Department of Education to develop a model policy. School boards would then be required to adopt “policies that are consistent with but may be more comprehensive than such model policies” by the 2021-2022 school year.
Equality Virginia Executive Director Vee Lamneck said this will help streamline school district approaches based on best practices.
“This is really important because right now we know that LGBT students are disproportionately discriminated against, they experience high rates of bullying and harassment. They aren’t coming to school, their grades are suffering,” Lamneck said.
The VDOE policy will line up with non-discrimination laws. Several bills advancing in the General Assembly add new protections for the LGBTQ community.
That concerns Brandon Picket, associate executive director of the Southern Baptist Convention of Virginia, which represents 700 churches in the Commonwealth.
“We fully reject bigotry, racism, discrimination and sexism of any kind, we stand on the principles of the Bible,” Picket said. “What the Bible does not say is that our gender identity is something that we can choose. In fact, it says very clearly that God created men and women.”
Picket was one of several speakers at a press conference organized by The Family Foundation on Tuesday. They agreed these bills don’t do enough to protect the religious freedom of people like Peter Vlaming.
The former high school french teacher is suing the West Point school system after he was fired for refusing to use a student’s preferred pronouns. Vlaming said he did agree to use an alternate name for the student but that wasn’t enough for administrators.
“In essence, I was being required to show adherence to the belief that my female student actually was a boy,” Vlaming said. “That would be a violation of my conscious.”
“Freedom of speech, of religious exercise, includes the freedom not to speak messages against our core beliefs,” he continued.
Sarah Via also spoke at the press conference, representing her twelve-year-old daughter. She said she’s being forced to use a locker room with a biological male at school.
“They [the female students] feel violated everyday when they have to undress in the gym locker room,” Via said. “When female teachers verbally dismiss their feelings of being violated, they’re violated again.”
Via said she believes local school districts should be able to handle these issues, rather than having the state mandate policies.
The House bill to create standards for the treatment of transgender students passed the full Senate on Monday with an amendment to not include guidelines for athletics. That means it has to go back to the full House for a vote before it can reach Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk.