Federal judge rejects teacher’s request on religious freedom grounds to halt policy requiring teachers to use students’ preferred name and pronouns

Via Religion Clause, a federal district court in Wyoming ruled that the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause likely does not require a school district to exempt a teacher from its “Preferred Name Policy,” even though the policy conflicts with a teacher’s religious beliefs about gender identity. The policy requires all school personnel to address students using their preferred names and pronouns. In rejecting Ashley Willey’s request for a preliminary injunction, the court emphasized that the policy impacts her speech only in her official capacity as public school employee, not her private expression.

Willey v. Sweetwater County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees required the judge to analyze the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent school prayer case, Kennedy v. Bremerton, in which the Supreme Court ruled that a high school football coach’s practice of leading a prayer at the 50-yard-line after games could continue. In that case, the Supreme Court held that the coach’s activity was private personal expression protected by the First Amendment, despite the fact that he was still on the job and on the field at the time. Here, the district court found that addressing students in the classroom is a part of Ms. Willey’s official duties and is not protected by the Free Speech or Free Exercise clauses:

The Court has little trouble concluding that Mrs. Willey was being asked – indeed compelled – to speak pursuant to her official duties as a teacher, and not as a citizen on a matter of public concern. The Policy only implicates Mrs. Willey’s interactions with students inside her classroom, and the communications she has pursuant to those duties with parents. . . .  Mrs. Willey is only being asked to refer to individual students by their preferred name and pronoun. She has not alleged she will be speaking generally regarding transgender individuals or being asked to convey any large-scale messages to her students regarding transgender rights.

The court further held that Mrs. Willey and her husband, who are also parents of a student in the district who requested a name and pronoun change without their knowledge, are likewise not entitled to an injunction under the Free Exercise Clause because their religious freedom rights as parents are not infringed by the policy. The court writes:

While it is apparent the Policy conflicts with at least some of their asserted beliefs, [the Willeys] have not shown it does more than “offend [their] personal religious beliefs.” What is notably absent is any allegation of coercion or compulsion. As parents, they are not being coerced or compelled into recognizing any individual in any particular way inconsistent with their beliefs…

The court distinguished the Willey case, which involved a K-12 policy, from a recent 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals opinion (Meriweather v. Hartop), in which the federal appeals court found a university professor’s refusal to use preferred pronouns in class *is* protected speech under the First Amendment:

Crucial to the Meriweather Court’s analysis was the teacher at issue was a public university professor lecturing in class. The Court specially recognized the expansive freedoms of speech and thought associated with the university environment, and universities occupy a special niche in our constitutional tradition.

The court likewise rejected the Willeys’ request for an injunction under the 14th Amendment’s right to direct the upbringing of children, quoting an appeals court decision that noted “parents simply do not have a constitutional right to control each and every aspect of their children’s education and oust the state’s authority over the subject.”

Although the Preferred Name Policy was upheld, an injunction *was* granted halting the district’s “privacy” policy, which barred school officials from informing parents of a child’s requested name/pronoun. The court found the policy constitutionally problematic in light of the parents’ right to make decisions about their children’s education.

If appealed, the case would be taken up by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Stay tuned.

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