Harrisonburg schools face lawsuit over gender identity policy

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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) – The City of Harrisonburg Public Schools is facing a lawsuit brought by a group of six parents and teachers over 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 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 use them from then on.

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 about 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 released a model policy on the treatment of transgender students and required all Commonwealth school divisions 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 was no case that was exactly like this before it was brought to Virginia. So it will be extremely important for other jurisdictions to see what the outcome of this case might be,” said Amanda Reiman Johnson, attorney and legal analyst at the AC Reiman law firm in Culpeper, Virginia.

Reiman-Johnson said that while there has been no precedent in Virginia regarding similar cases, the state Supreme Court tends to rule in favor of greater parental involvement in schools.

“The Supreme Court of Virginia has consistently upheld that parents should have the final say in how their child is raised, whether it’s in regards to their upbringing or their own religious beliefs,” she said.

Plaintiffs in the case argue that the school division’s policy violates teachers’ First Amendment rights 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 whole thing hinges on something we’ve seen earlier this year and in previous years regarding the COVID vaccine and what exactly does honest religious belief mean?” says Johnson.

The plaintiffs claim 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 honest religious belief.

A sincere religious belief in court is a moral or ethical belief about what is right or wrong that is supported with the force of the traditional views of a religion and not mere personal opinion.

“Not just an intimate 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,” Johnson said.

The school division maintains that the policy is intended to protect trans students and is part of its non-discrimination policy.

“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 students want to be called,” Reiman-Johnson said.

The City of Harrisonburg Public Schools released the statement below regarding the lawsuit.

“Our school board has general non-discrimination policies in its policy manual and maintains a strong commitment to its Inclusiveness Statement, which is available on our website. In specific student situations, the emphasis is always on promoting 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 comes to us in the form of a lawsuit instead 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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