Like students, teachers are not required to check their faith at the classroom door, but that has not stopped certain schools from trying to control the actions and even the speech of its teachers and professors. Many of these violations of First Amendment rights come as teachers attempt to push back against the gender ideology that is permeating schools nationwide.
Our friends at Alliance Defending Freedom are currently representing multiple teachers and students who are fighting to defend their right to free speech from this wave of gender ideology. Matt Sharp, senior legal counsel and Director of the Center for Legislative Advocacy at ADF, joins Traci DeVette Griggs on this week’s episode of Family Policy Matters to discuss these cases and explain just how broadly and deeply gender ideology is invading our nation’s schools.
Sharp shares about the case of Tanner Cross, a Louden County, Virginia school teacher who attended a school board meeting to express his personal concern about gender identity policies that were being considered. Cross was then suspended from his job, even though he spoke as a private citizen off-campus.
“Teachers don’t give up that right to speak out on these matters of public concern, on these matters of public policy, simply because they’re employed by the school,” explains Sharp. “Teachers are private citizens that have the same right to engage in the political debate and dialogue as anyone else.”
Another case of note is that of Dr. Nicholas Meriwether, a college professor in Ohio, whose college is trying to force him to use a student’s preferred pronouns, even if he encountered that student outside of class and off-campus. “The government should never have the power to force anyone to say something that they don’t believe is true,” argues Sharp.
Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Matt Sharp discuss ADF’s work to defending the rights of teachers, students, and religious schools from gender ideology.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Nearly every week it seems we hear national headlines about situations where the push for gender ideology clashes with individual or religious liberties and rights, especially in educational environments—including athletics—from elementary schools, to universities, effecting students, teachers, staff, and even parents. As this situation increasingly raises legal questions, organizations like Alliance Defending Freedom (or ADF) are stepping up.
We are joined today by Matt Sharp, senior legal counsel with ADF, where he directs the Center for Legislative Advocacy. Matt Sharp, welcome back to Family Policy Matters.
MATT SHARP: Thank you for having me.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: First, would you start by defining for us what exactly is meant by “gender ideology.”
MATT SHARP: Gender ideology focuses on this idea that a person’s outward expression of their gender—male, female, or even non-binary or something else entirely—is separate from their biological sex. Now, look, there’s some nugget of truth in there. I think we’re all familiar with some boys that don’t enjoy sports or those things, and then some girls that do. And we’ve always welcomed that and embrace that, that boys and girls don’t necessarily have the same desires or activities they’re involved in, or things like that. But when we’re talking about this gender identity ideology, where we’re going is something far beyond that, which is that a child was born in the wrong body. And so what we see this leading to is children being told, “Okay, we need to first put you on puberty blockers, so that you don’t go through natural puberty.” And then, “We need to start administering cross-sex hormones,” so that a boy begins to develop certain characteristics of females, and lowering or raising voices and developing certain anatomical features. And then finally this culminates with surgery, which is permanently sterilizing. So that’s one way we see this gender identity ideology play out, but we also see it being forced on other people. We may have seen this in the context of being told, “You must use someone’s preferred pronoun,” or “You can’t refer to someone by their biological sex; you must accept their new gender identity.” And so at its core, it is sort of a rejection of the idea that a person’s biological sex is sort of the defining feature of who they are, their gender, and rather says, “No, it’s an internal sense.” And we as a society then need to embrace the person’s self-chosen gender, whether that’s male, female, non-binary, or something else entirely.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Let’s talk specifically about educators and staff members. How is that affecting them? And are there legitimate limits on what teachers can say or teach in regard to this in the school setting? Let’s start with that first.
MATT SHARP: So there’s a little background. The Supreme Court has recognized that neither students nor teachers give up their First Amendment rights when they enter the school house gates in the morning. When it comes to students, we know that they’ve got a well-established right to talk about their beliefs, talk about their faith, talk about a variety of issues. And even teachers don’t give up all of those rights. Obviously, they’re a little more constrained. A teacher that’s a math teacher can’t bring in current hot topics or talk about other subject matters; that person was hired to teach math. But that being said, where the real conflict comes is when the schools start telling teachers not just what subjects they can teach, but what other ideas and things that they can express. So we see this in instances where, you know, a teacher maybe wears a cross necklace and the school tries to say, “No, you can’t wear that. That’s impermissibly expressing your religious beliefs.” Well, that’s false; teachers can express themselves in that way. Teachers can absolutely continue to express their own beliefs and to do so sort of consistent with the curriculum and school policies, but where their limits are as is their ability to sort of go outside of their subject matter or to try and indoctrinate students. That’s where the teacher has to maintain that neutrality—not favoring religion, but not disfavoring religion as well. For example, this obviously comes up a lot in the gender identity context as well when it comes to beliefs about gender identity ideology and what it means to be male and female.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So tell us about the Tanner Cross case in Virginia. ADF played a role in that. Give us a brief history of what happened and the current status of that, if you would.
MATT SHARP: Well, this is a great example showing the broader, Constitutional rights that teachers and school staff have outside of the classroom. In Virginia, for several months they’ve been contemplating policies that relate to gender identity, specifically saying, “We want students to be referred to by their preferred pronouns.” And, “We want to ensure that students can play on sports teams consistent with their gender identity,” meaning that a male can play on female teams and other policies like that. And so such a policy was being discussed in Loudoun County, Virginia at the school district there. Tanner Cross, who is a teacher there in the school district—I think for about 15 years—he decided in his capacity as a private citizen to go to one of these school board meetings where they were debating these policies and to express his own personal views, not those of the school, but his own personal views about this. He spoke up at the meeting and shared those, and next thing he knows, he’s called into the school office and suspended, being punished because of his speech opposing these gender identity policies. And his speech raising concerns about what this would mean and how it could infringe on free speech and religious liberty. He found himself being punished as a result of his exercising his Constitutional rights. And that’s where ADF, we stepped in and we’re representing him in a lawsuit challenging the school’s policy saying, “Once teachers like Tanner step off campus, they’re private citizens and they have the same right to engage on the school board, to discuss these policies being debated by the school board, the same right to do so is any other citizens.”
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: And so you’re in the midst of that process right now, the lawsuit?
MATT SHARP: That’s right. And we had a really great preliminary win. We filed what’s called a request for a preliminary injunction—temporary injunction—basically saying, “While this court case goes on, let Tanner have his job back. Take him off the suspension and make sure that he’s not facing ongoing punishment, because this is his livelihood, this is his passion to teach kids and interact with them.” And again, this is a teacher that has a long history of serving students, working with students; he is very compassionate and caring towards them, but has concerns about some of the policies. We had a great ruling from the Court in favor of Tanner, recognizing exactly what we’ve been talking about: that when Tanner showed up at that meeting, he was speaking out as a citizen on a matter of importance to him, to the board, to the entire community. And that teachers don’t give up that right to speak out on these matters of public concern, on these matters of public policy, simply because they’re employed by the school. It was a really great victory reaffirming that long-standing principle that when you’re off-the-clock, teachers are private citizens that have the same right to engage in the political debate and dialogue as anyone else.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So are there other educators that you’re representing? And if so, tell us a little bit about those cases.
MATT SHARP: Yeah. Peter Vlaming, he was the teacher also in Virginia that has faced punishment because he declined to use a student’s preferred pronoun. And unfortunately, he’s not the only case. We have another one of a college professor in southern Ohio, Dr. Nicholas Meriwether, very similar circumstances. He’s a philosophy professor and really likes to engage with the students, and had a student in class and he referred to the student by the students biologically pronoun. And the student confronted Dr. Meriwether after class and said, “How dare you! That’s not my pronoun. You must refer to me as a opposite sex, as my preferred pronoun,” rather than what is accurate. This elevated, and even the college went so far as to tell Dr. Meriwether, even if he encountered the student outside of class in the community—let’s say at a grocery store—he would have to use the student’s preferred pronoun.
And again, what we’re talking about is the government, these colleges and schools, being able to force a person to say something that violates their beliefs and that they don’t believe is true. And so those are two of the cases that we’ve got going on right now on behalf of teachers, of college professors that are being threatened with their livelihoods if they don’t give into this gender ideology and affirm a student’s preferred pronouns. And all these professors, all they’re asking for is “Don’t make us speak something we believe is inaccurate.” They’re willing to find compromise. So for example, they’ve offered to say, “How about I just refer to you by your first or last name and just avoid pronouns entirely?” But that’s not good enough, and the schools are telling these staff members, these teachers, “No, you must use pronouns; your compromise is not sufficient.” And that just goes to show some of the harms of this gender identity ideology that was discussed in the beginning, that it is being used to force people to speak things, to say things that violate their deeply held religious beliefs. And that should be something that all of us agree: the government should never have the power to force anyone to say something that they don’t believe is true.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Let’s talk a little bit about athletics. What’s happening with that? Are we making progress on that? What do you think the status is of that argument?
MATT SHARP: Yeah, so our Connecticut case, it was actually recently dismissed because the two male athletes are no longer in school there. The court was saying, “Well, since they’re no longer at school, there’s really no risk that you’re going to be forced to compete against male athletes.” That concerns us because the policy is still in place. This is the policy that allowed it to happen in the first place. That’s what we’re challenging is those bad policies. So that Connecticut case is still ongoing. But I think more optimistically is the number of states in response to that Connecticut lawsuit that have passed legislation to protect women’s sports. This started last year with Idaho, and it’s continued this year with now eight states passing legislation to protect fairness and a fair and level playing field in women’s sports. Most recently Florida became the eighth state to do this. And we’re now seeing more and more legislators take a strong interest in what can we do in our state to protect fairness in women’s sports. And I think that’s been a great development in all of this, is to see how a powerful story like that out of Connecticut—a story of girls losing out on opportunities because of their bad policies that allow males to compete in female sports—served as a motivation for these legislators to take up the cause, to champion it, and to get legislation passed so that this same story doesn’t happen in their states.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Gender identity ideology is reaching into housing as well, right? I know there’s an example of College of the Ozarks that you all are dealing with.
MATT SHARP: Yeah. We’ve seen how this can really reach into so many different areas. We’ve talked a lot about sort of pronouns and speech and words and even sports, but we forget this gender ideology even applies to dorm rooms. So recently the Biden Administration did a new rule from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and included in this is a rule that would apply to religious schools and colleges. Schools that separate men and women. When it comes to housing and dormitories, they’ve got men’s dorms and they have a women’s dorms and they don’t want biological males being able to stay in women’s dormitories. They don’t think that’s best for the women involved. They don’t think that’s consistent with their religious beliefs about what it means to be male and female and God’s role in creating the two sexes. And so College of the Ozarks finds itself subject to this new rule, this new gender identity rule from the Biden Administration. Alliance Defending Freedom is representing College of the Ozarks in a lawsuit, challenging this and saying, “You can’t force us to violate our religious beliefs. You can’t force us to do something that harms women, that undermines their right to privacy, the right to safety and dignity when it comes to housing.” This case is still very, very early in the process, but just goes to show how this gender identity ideology is seeping into so many things, especially to religious schools and colleges.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Matt Sharp, where can our listeners go to follow the cases that we’ve talked about today, and to hear more about the good work that you all do over there at Alliance Defending Freedom?
MATT SHARP: Your listeners can visit our website. It is adflegal.org, and there they can learn more about these cases and others that are going on as it relates to gender identity or religious freedom, life, marriage and family, even parental rights.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: All right, Matt Sharp, senior legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, thank you so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.