OPINION: Victory for first amendment rights or defeat for gender equity?

Illustration+by+Wren+Johnson+%2F+The+Sunflower

Illustration by Wren Johnson / The Sunflower

After being suspended for incorrectly gendering and deadnaming a Fort Riley Middle School student, math strategies teacher Pamela Ricard’s lawsuit was settled with a $95,000 payout from the Geary County School District. The decision has sparked debate across the country over whether or not the First Amendment protects a teacher’s right to ignore a student’s preferred pronouns/name as part of a religious exemption.

Similarly to WSU, Fort Riley schools permit transgender or gender-nonconforming students to dictate whether or not their preferred name and/or pronouns are disclosed to parents during parent-teacher conferences to prevent out-ing closested students. However, Ricard, a Christian who has been employed with the Geary School District since 2005, claimed that this policy violated her religious beliefs.

After several warnings and reprimands, Ricard was suspended for three days. The following settlement’s outcome ruled that Ricard will receive $95,000 in damages and legal fees while also permitting her to retire with good standing.

As a former Fort Riley resident, this dispute and settlement come as little surprise. Military communities have often been known for encouraging conformity and shaming or disregarding those that stray from the societal norm.

While the debate between freedom of expression and freedom of religion wages on, we have to start asking ourselves if these cries of injustice truly stem from the feeling of having our rights violated, or if a religious exception from respecting a students identity is simply a facade to continue homophobic and transphobic practices.

Ricard was known for addressing students by “miss” or mister” followed by their last names. Is it truly too much effort to ask that Ricard simply call students by their last names, or refer to them as “your student” or “your child” during conferences? Respecting a student’s name and pronouns isn’t rocket science and it isn’t difficult.

It simply takes time and patience, two traits that Ricard evidently doesn’t have. Furthermore, judgment and disrespect contrasts with everything Jesus, and most other religious figures, stand for.

Disregarding a student’s pronouns/name and then hiding behind the shield of religious freedom to undermine that student’s identity can lead to trauma, shame and the devolution of everything LGBTQ+ people and allies have fought so hard for: the right to be respected and treated like their peers.

When it comes to correctly addressing students by their preferred names and pronouns and respecting a student’s wish for privacy, take the active effort to step up and advocate, protect and support that student. After all, isn’t that what teachers are for?