Metro Weekly

Bill Allowing Teachers To Ignore Students’ Pronouns Stalls In Tennessee

Measure would have prioritized teachers' beliefs and views by allowing them to misgender and deadname trans students.

Photo Illustration: Todd Franson/Metro Weekly

A bill that would have permitted teachers to misgender their transgender students by refusing to use their correct names or pronouns has stalled in the Tennessee General Assembly.

The bill, which passed the State House of Representatives last week on a party-line vote, would have allowed public school teachers to refuse to “use a student’s preferred pronoun when referring to the student if the preferred pronoun is not consistent with the student’s biological sex.”

The bill would have also protected educators from being sued or disciplined by administrators for refusing to use a student’s correct pronouns.

Supporters of the bill had argued that the measure was necessary to protect teachers and school staff from “coerced speech,” especially in cases where an individual may claim that homosexuality or transgender identity run counter to their religious beliefs.

“Obviously, teachers in schools can and should be required to act with professionalism and treat all of their students with dignity and respect. Nothing in this bill changes that obligation,” co-sponsor Rep. Mark Cochran (R-Englewood), said during a House committee hearing last month, reports NBC News. “Teachers and public school employees, however, cannot be forced to contradict their core beliefs or to say things they don’t believe.”

Similar measures have been proposed in West Virginia and Rhode Island, but had never been approved by a legislative chamber until the House vote in Tennessee. But the issue of transgender student pronouns has become a hot-button issue for social conservatives, who have sought to cast the issue as one involving free speech.

Critics, however, argue that such a measure would violate Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex-based discrimination in educational settings, which has been interpreted by the Biden administration also as protecting LGBTQ students from discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Despite the eagerness of proponents to push through the pronoun bill, the Senate Finance, Ways, and Means Committee decided not to move forward with the measure, sending it to the heel of the calendar. As a result, the bill, which was expected to be fast-tracked to Lee’s desk, was stalled before the end of this year’s legislative session and will not become law — at least this year.

“We are profoundly grateful to the members of the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee, whose decision not to advance this dangerous bill affirms that discrimination and hate are not welcome in Tennessee schools,” Henry Seaton, the transgender justice advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee said in a statement. “Trans children and youth already face unprecedented amounts of discrimination in education, from not being able to use their correct name to multiple forms of harassment and bullying.

“Legislators’ action today is one step in the right direction toward protecting this vulnerable population, and we commit to doing everything we can to move our state forward in the fight for fair and equal treatment of all trans people. We hope that trans children across the state are comforted by the failure of this bill, and further believe that they are valued in the classroom.”

Seaton, who is transgender, noted that in high school, he experienced discrimination and harassment from teachers and students who purposefully misgendered him and refused to acknowledge his identity.

“A teacher’s job is to create a safe learning environment for children,” he said. “When that teacher perpetuates a harmful behavior on a trans student, that trickles down to peer behavior as well.”

Several disputes over pronoun usage at the high school and college level have emerged in recent years, most notably in Ohio, where Shawnee State University agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by Nicolas Meriwether, an evangelical Christian and philosophy professor who sued after being disciplined for refusing to use female pronouns to refer to a transgender student in one of his classes.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Meriwether’s favor last year, leading the university to ultimately decide to settle rather than appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the conservative majority has tended to be overly sympathetic to people who claim their religious rights have been violated.

In another instance, the Virginia Supreme Court heard arguments in February regarding the case of Peter Blaming, a high school French teacher who was fired for insubordination after repeatedly refusing to use a transgender student’s preferred pronouns.

Vlaming sued the West Point School Board in 2019 over his termination, but the lawsuit was dismissed without going to trial. Vlaming’s lawyers, with the anti-LGBTQ Alliance Defending Freedom, appealed the dismissal of his lawsuit, arguing that the school system had violated Vlaming’s constitutional rights.

In Loudoun County, the school board decided to settle part of a lawsuit brought by a gym teacher who was suspended after declaring he would refuse to use transgender students’ correct names and pronouns. That teacher, Tanner Cross, sued, arguing his freedom of religion and right to free speech had been violated and that his suspension was retribution for speaking out against a district policy affirming the gender identity of transgender students.

Cross and two other teachers are continuing to sue the school district on the grounds that the transgender-affirming policies are inherently unconstitutional.

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