A Kansas middle school teacher who refused to call transgender or nonbinary students by their preferred names and pronouns has been financially rewarded for her defiance of school district policy — by the school district.
Teacher Pamela Ricard will get $95,000 from her employer, Geary County Schools, in a settlement of a lawsuit she filed against the district for disciplining her for not complying with district policy. She claimed following the policy of addressing students by their preferred names and pronouns violated her religious beliefs.
Geary County is located in central Kansas, southwest of Manhattan, which is home to Kansas State University.
This is the latest round in a national battle between religious and political conservatives resisting the growing awareness of transgender and nonbinary identity.
This is the latest round in a national battle between religious and political conservatives resisting the growing awareness of transgender and nonbinary identity. Republican governors and legislators in states across the nation, supported by evangelical Christians, have enacted dozens of laws targeting transgender children and their families. This part of the culture wars has spilled over into public schools, which are the target of organized political campaigns to stop advances in equity, diversity and inclusion.
It is in that context of being responsive to nonbinary students that Geary County Schools adopted a policy requiring teachers and administrators to refer to students by their preferred names and pronouns.
The lawsuit filed by Ricard explains that a student who was listed in school records as female preferred to be addressed by a different name than the one given in the official record and not as a female. Despite this knowledge, Ricard repeatedly called the student “Miss (last name).”
Ricard acknowledges in the suit that school officials on multiple occasions asked her not to offend the student in this way but she refused to change. In April 2021, the teacher was placed on a three-day suspension with pay for violation of 11 district policies, including rules on bullying and diversity and inclusion.
With help of Alliance Defending Freedom, one of the evangelical advocacy groups pushing numerous conservative cases through the judicial system, Ricard filed suit, claiming a religious liberty violation.
“Any policy that requires Ms. Ricard to refer to a student by a gendered, non-binary, or plural pronoun (e.g., he/him, she/her, they/them, zhe/zher, etc.) or salutation (Mr., Miss, Ms.) or other gendered language that is different from the student’s biological sex actively violates Ms. Ricard’s religious beliefs,” the lawsuit stated.
In other words, the student was not the victim here, Ricard said, but she as the teacher was the victim of an unconscionable district policy.
How to address other people in conversation is not a matter of doctrine for any religious body in the United States, although several conservative denominational bodies and nondenominational groups have taken stances that there are only two genders, fixed at birth and determined by God.
“Ms. Ricard believes that God created human beings as either male or female, that this sex is fixed in each person from the moment of conception.”
The original lawsuit stated: “Ms. Ricard is a Christian and holds sincere religious beliefs consistent with the traditional Christian and biblical understanding of the human person and biological sex. Ms. Ricard believes that God created human beings as either male or female, that this sex is fixed in each person from the moment of conception, and that it cannot be changed, regardless of an individual person’s feelings, desires, or preferences.”
At a school board meeting, Ricard asked for a religious exemption to the district policy on addressing students by their preferred names and pronouns. After deliberation, that request was denied.
A list of factual allegations given by Ricard and her attorneys in the original filing states that Ricard “believes based on scientific evidence that children do not have a fully developed capacity to understand the long-term consequences of their decisions” and that she as a teacher “wants to protect children from making potentially irreversible and life-changing decisions that they may later regret.”
The court filing repeatedly employs the term “based on scientific evidence” to support Ricard’s views. What is “scientific evidence” regarding gender identity is a highly disputed matter in American culture today. There is an increasing body of scientific and medical research confirming that gender dysphoria is real and life-threatening.
“Your beliefs do not allow you to refuse to acknowledge who a student is.”
“We know from research, long term, very powerful research, that affirming a young person’s gender leads to better health and well-being,” Joel Baum, senior director of the nonprofit Gender Spectrum, told CNN. “This is about the basic rights and dignity of a human being. Your beliefs do not allow you to refuse to acknowledge who a student is.”
The American Psychological Association, American Medical Association and the Pediatric Endocrine Society, along with dozens of other medical associations, have officially recognized the importance of affirming a young person’s name and pronouns, Baum explained to CNN.
The consequences of ignoring gender dysphoria even among young children is associated with significantly higher rates of attempted and successful suicide.
Geary County Schools chose to settle the lawsuit with Ricard rather than continue at trial after the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas in May allowed Ricard’s lawsuit to proceed, suggesting she was likely to prevail on her First Amendment free exercise of religion claim.
Again, this touches on one of the most contentious areas of religious liberty law in America today, with conservative evangelicals claiming their right to freely exercise their religious beliefs — even if harmful to others — takes precedence over the First Amendment prohibition of an “establishment” of religion.
Several recent cases before the U.S. Supreme Court have arisen from such claims, including Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, in which the high court’s new ultraconservative majority ruled that a high school assistant football coach should be allowed to lead Christian prayers on the 50-yard line after games.
That decision was widely denounced by traditional defenders of religious liberty, but it was lauded by groups such as Alliance Defending Freedom, which has another such case pending before the Supreme Court. In that case, a graphic designer who wants to be available for public hire says she can’t do that because she will not accept work designing wedding websites for same-sex couples, which would place her in violation of a Colorado law that previously was at the center of a Supreme Court case brought by a wedding cake baker.
Alliance Defending Freedom has other cases teed up related to abortion, the rights of a pharmacist to refuse to dispense certain medications due to religious beliefs and the rights of a wedding photographer not to work with same-sex weddings. The nonprofit represented the State of Mississippi in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the case the Supreme Court used in June to reverse 50 years of legal access to abortion nationwide.
A radical court on the move | Analysis by Stan Hastey