The legal fight over a Virginia school district's suspension of a teacher who refused to address students by their preferred pronouns and names may be headed to the state Supreme Court.
Last month, a circuit court judge ruled that Tanner Cross must be allowed to return to his job at Loudon County Public Schools.
Cross, a physical education teacher at Leesburg Elementary School, was placed on administrative leave after saying at a school board meeting that it was against his religion to address a student by a gender not assigned to them at birth.
The district appealed that decision saying Cross "demonstrated his unwillingness to comply with existing and proposed policies." It also said the school system had experienced "significant disruption" since Cross' comments, and five parents have contacted the principal requesting their children have no interaction with Cross.
Cross made the comments at a board meeting on May 25 in response to the district's "Rights of Transgender and Gender-Expansive Students." The state is requiring all school systems to update their policies on transgender students, part of which includes a requirement that students be allowed to use their preferred pronouns and name.
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Members of the public also fought with the school board over the policy at a tense June 23 meeting that ended with at least one arrest and the declaration of an unlawful assembly.
"While LCPS respects the rights of public-school employees to free speech and free exercise of religion, those rights do not outweigh the rights of students to be educated in a supportive and nurturing environment," the district said in a statement.
The Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal group that is representing Cross, filed a reply brief with the Virginia Supreme Court on June 30 arguing that the lower court was correct to reinstate Cross.
“The lower court’s decision ordering Tanner’s reinstatement was a well-reasoned application of these facts to clearly established law, so there is no reason for the Virginia Supreme Court to take this appeal," Tyson Langhofer, director of the Alliance Defending Freedom's Center for Academic Freedom, said in a statement. "The school district wants to force Tanner to endorse its ideals and shut down any opposing views."
'Unconstitutional action': Judge rules district must reinstate teacher put on leave for opposing gender identity policy
At the school board meeting, Cross said he was "speaking out of love for those who are suffering from gender dysphoria," which is distress caused by a discrepancy between the gender a person identifies as and the gender assigned at birth.
Cross cited a "60 Minutes" segment about young people who identified as transgender, took steps to transition and then changed their minds. Activists and reporters involved in the story expressed concerns that the reporting could be taken out of context and weaponized by people who oppose transgender rights.
"I love all of my students, but I will never lie to them, regardless of the consequences," Cross said at the meeting. "I'm a teacher, but I serve God first, and I will not affirm that a biological boy can be a girl and vice versa because it's against my religion, it's lying to my child, it's abuse to a child and it's sinning against our God."
Two days after the meeting, Cross was suspended. On June 1, he sued the district claiming his suspension violated his First Amendment rights to free speech and exercise of religion.
Stacy Haney, a lawyer representing the school system, told the Associated Press the state law gives the school board no leeway on implementing the policy and school board regulations already prohibit discrimination based on gender identity, which Haney said includes referring to transgender children by their preferred pronoun.
As a result, Haney said, Cross was saying he would defy existing school policies.
The latest development in Cross' case also comes as a number of states consider bills that would ban transgender girls and women from girl’s and women’s sports and prohibit medical treatments for transgender minors.
Contributing: Jordan Mendoza, USA TODAY; The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Gender identity: Virginia school appeals reinstatement of Tanner Cross