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Virginia School District Sued Over Inclusive Gender Identity Policies

Virginia School District Sued Over Inclusive Gender Identity Policies

a public school bus
Jorge Salcedo/Shutterstock

According to the plaintiffs, the district's trans-supportive policies violate their First Amendment rights. 

A group of six parents and teachers have filed a lawsuit against Harrisonburg City Public Schools (HCPS) in Virginia, citing that the school division's inclusive policy on gender identity and transgender students violates their First Amendment rights to freedom of religion and speech.

The lawsuit was filed in Rockingham County Circuit Court by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a Christian legal advocacy group based in Scottsdale, Ariz., on behalf of Deborah Figliola, Kristine Marsh, Timothy and Laura Nelson, and John and Nicole Stephens, according to local TV station WHSV.

ADF has been deemed an extremist anti-LGBTQ+ group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

The policy that the plaintiffs take issue with was adopted last year by the Virginia Department of Education, which issued a model policy regarding the treatment of trans students and required that schools throughout the Commonwealth adopt commiserate policies. HCPS' policy laid out that teachers ask students for their preferred names and pronouns and use them. If the teacher were informed by the student their gender did not match their assigned sex at birth, that information was shared with a guidance counselor who would speak with the student about gender identity; however, the teacher was not allowed to notify parents.

According to the lawsuit, HCPS' policy requirements far exceeded what was laid out in the model policy issued by the state's Department of Education.

Along with the impact this lawsuit could have on students in the HCPS division, it also has the potential to set a precedent in the state.

"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," Amanda Reiman Johnson, a lawyer and legal analyst at AC Reiman Law Firm in Culpeper, Virginia, told WHSV.

She added that the state's Supreme Court typically rules 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.

This case will hinge on whether or not the school's policy infringes on the parents' "sincere religious beliefs" about gender. The schools, however, say that the policy is simply meant to protect trans students and is part of their larger nondiscrimination policy.

In response to the lawsuit, HCPS released the following statement to the station:

"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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