Harrisonburg Schools face lawsuit over gender identity policy

Published: Jun. 6, 2022 at 6:27 PM EDT

HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) - Harrisonburg City Public Schools is facing a lawsuit from a group of six parents and teachers regarding a school division policy on gender identity and the treatment of transgender students.

The lawsuit was filed in Rockingham County Circut Court by Deborah Figliola, Kristine Marsh, Timothy and Laura Nelson, and John and Nicole Stephens. They are represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal advocacy group based in Scottsdale, Arizona.

The group claims that the policy violates their First Amendment rights to freedom of religion and freedom of speech.

The policy in question requires teachers to ask students what their preferred names and pronouns are and to utilize those from that point forward.

If a student’s preferred name and pronoun differ from their biological sex at birth, the information is shared with a guidance counselor who will facilitate a conversation on gender identity with the student. However, teachers are not permitted to notify a student’s parents of the request.

The policy was adopted last August after the Virginia Department of Education issued a model policy on the treatment of transgender students and required all school divisions in the Commonwealth to adopt similar policies.

The lawsuit claims that the HCPS policy requirements go beyond what is set in stone by the Department of Education.

“There hasn’t been a case that’s been exactly like this before that’s been brought in Virginia. So it’s going to be incredibly important for other jurisdictions to see what the outcome of this case might be,” said Amanda Reiman Johnson, a lawyer and legal analyst at AC Reiman Law Firm in Culpeper, Virginia.

Reiman-Johnson said while there has been no precedent set in Virginia regarding any similar cases, the State Supreme Court does tend to rule in favor of greater parental involvement in schools.

“The Virginia Supreme Court has routinely upheld that parents should have the ultimate say in dictating how their child is brought up whether that is regarding their education or their own religious beliefs,” she said.

The plaintiffs in the case argue that the school division’s policy violates the First Amendment rights of teachers by requiring them to call students by their preferred pronouns and preventing them from notifying parents of the request.

“One of the key arguments in this entire case hinges on something that we saw earlier this year and in years prior regarding the COVID vaccine and what exactly does a sincere religious belief mean?” said Johnson.

The plaintiffs claim that the policy violates their religious beliefs about gender. Reiman-Johnson said the case will likely hinge on whether they can prove their beliefs meet the requirements of sincere religious belief.

A sincere religious belief in a court of law is a moral or ethical belief about what is right or wrong that is held with the strength of a religion’s traditional views and not of a simple personal opinion.

“Not just a closely held religious belief but a sincere religious belief. Then ultimately it might be able to tie into their defense that ‘hey this violates our First Amendment against our freedom of religion and our freedom of speech,” said Johnson.

The school division maintains the policy is to meant to protect trans students and is part of its nondiscrimination policy.

“The defendants are saying listen we have to adhere to these state rules that provide some type of guidance when it comes to adhering to what the students want to be called,” said Reiman-Johnson.

Harrisonburg City Public Schools released the statement below in regard to the lawsuit.

“Our School Board has general nondiscrimination policies within its Policy Manual and maintains a strong commitment to its inclusivity statement, all of which is available on our website. In specific student situations, the focus is always to foster a team approach that includes and supports the unique needs of the student and family on a case-by-case basis. HCPS also has systems in place to listen to and respond to employee concerns. We are dismayed that this complaint is coming to us in the form of a lawsuit in lieu of the collaborative approach we invite and take to address specific needs or concerns, an approach that we believe best serves the interests of our students, staff, and families.”

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