No one could say Peter Vlaming didn’t try.
When a female student returned to West Point High School this year now identifying as a man, Vlaming, who had taught French for seven years at the school in Virginia, found himself in a difficult position. How could he ensure the student felt comfortable in the classroom without violating his Christian belief that God created human beings male and female?
Vlaming went to great lengths to accommodate the student without violating his faith. He used the student’s new name to avoid upsetting the student, but refrained from using pronouns altogether in the student’s presence to avoid speaking against his beliefs.
“I’m happy to avoid female pronouns not to offend because I’m not here to provoke,” Vlaming told the press, “but I can’t refer to a female as a male, and a male as a female in good conscience and faith.”
However, this wasn’t enough to satisfy the student’s family or the school board.
“I can’t think of a worse way to treat a child than what was happening,” said the principal, who had ordered the teacher to use the student’s preferred pronouns.
The West Point school board then voted unanimously to fire Vlaming for refusing to comply with administrators’ orders to use the student’s preferred masculine pronouns.
Very soon, other Americans could be vulnerable to the same fate as Vlaming, simply for trying not to violate their belief that men and women are unchangeable biological realities. Sweeping gender-identity policies now threaten to silence debate over gender nationwide.
What is so shocking about Vlaming’s case is that instead of pursuing a solution that would respect everyone — teacher and student alike — the school board refused to respect Vlaming’s beliefs and terminated him.
This incident does not bode well for future conflicts over transgender policies. As more of these conflicts arise in schools, hospitals, shelters and businesses, America must allow its citizens to think about and debate these issues freely.
Unfortunately, government coercion as a weapon of the culture wars is now spreading across the professions.
First, there were cases in the wedding industry where the government tried to force people to violate their belief that marriage is between a man and a woman — florists, bakers, photographers, wedding venues and so forth. Then those lawsuits spread to even more industries — videography, web design, calligraphy studios and public service.
Now, the government is beginning to penalize people who hold that there are two biological sexes. For example, a Catholic hospital was sued for refusing to remove a biological female’s healthy uterus to pursue transition. Meanwhile, two parents lost custody of their teenage daughter for refusing to allow their child to take testosterone and identify as a boy.
This could be just the beginning. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi recently announced that the Equality Act will be a top Democratic priority in 2019. The bill would impose controversial transgender policies on the nation by elevating “gender identity” to protected status in federal anti-discrimination law.
This would have drastic implications for average Americans. It would open up sex-specific facilities like bathrooms, locker rooms and shelters to members of the opposite biological sex. It would allow biological males to compete on women’s sports teams. It would force health care providers and insurance companies to pay for radical transgender therapies.
In brief, stories such as Vlaming’s would become the new normal.
Coercion isn’t the answer to current debates about gender identity. Americans must remain free to discuss these policies in a respectful manner — which is why the firing of Vlaming is so disturbing. Instead of allowing the parties involved to find a workable compromise, the school board not only picked sides, it silenced one side.
This is an extremely disturbing precedent.
Sadly, while Vlaming was willing to work to make the student a cherished member of the community, the school board was not willing to work to make the teacher a cherished member as well.
Speaking and acting according to one’s conscience should not be a fireable offense. When authorities try to force people to act against their beliefs, it is a blatant abuse of power — one that can easily backfire when political power changes hands. That is why everyone should be concerned about these emerging challenges to freedom of conscience.
Now that Vlaming has lost his job, who could be next? The honest answer is that someday, it may well be you.
Monica Burke is a researcher in the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.