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Kansas teacher sues district over preferred pronouns policy

Christopher Sessums
flickr Creative Commons

A Kansas middle school teacher is suing the district where she works after she was disciplined for refusing to use a student's preferred first name and gender pronouns. She cited her constitutional rights and religious beliefs for her decision.

A Kansas middle school teacher who was disciplined for refusing to use a student’s preferred first name and gender pronouns is suing the school district.

Fort Riley Middle School math teacher Pamela Ricard said in a federal lawsuit filed this week that the Geary County School District violated her constitutional rights and did not accommodate her Christian beliefs when it suspended her for three days.

The district did not immediately return messages left Wednesday seeking comment on the lawsuit. The school is located on Fort Riley, a U.S. Army base.

Ricard, who has taught at the school since 2005, was reprimanded and suspended in April 2021 for addressing a student as “miss” to avoid using the student’s preferred first name after Picard was told that the student used he/him pronouns.

Ricard believed addressing the student as “Miss (legal/enrolled last name)" respected the student while also upholding Ricard's religious convictions, according to the lawsuit.

A school counselor had told Ricard the student preferred a first name different from his legal and enrolled name. The student had never told Ricard of the preference, but a classmate told Ricard the student preferred he/him pronouns, according to the lawsuit, filed by Kriegshauser Ney Law Group.

The suit says Ricard believes that God assigns gender at birth and any policy requiring her to use language that is different from the student's biological sex “actively violates Ms. Ricard's religious beliefs.”

Neither the school nor the district had a formal policy on gender pronouns at the time. Ricard was suspended under the district's bullying and diversity and inclusion policies.

A week after her suspension, the middle school principal sent staff new training and protocol materials requiring them to use students' preferred names and pronouns.

During an appeal of her discipline, Ricard asked three times to be given a religious exemption to the policy, but her beliefs were never accommodated, according to the lawsuit.

The school district's Board of Education in September approved a policy requiring that students' preferred names and pronouns be used. At that meeting, the board also voted to deny Ricard's request for a religious accommodation.

The district is threatening to discipline Ricard again if she refuses to use students' preferred pronouns, or chooses to use gender-neutral language, according to the lawsuit.

Ricard is suing the school board, as well as Superintendent Reginald Eggleston and Fort Riley Middle School principal Kathleen Brennan. The lawsuit alleges the district's actions violated Ricard's constitutional rights to free speech, free exercise of her religion, due process and equal protection under the law.

“Our suit contends that schools cannot force teachers to promote novel views about gender fluidity and ever-expanding pronoun categories without regard to the First Amendment or due process,” said Josh Ney, one of her attorneys. “Throughout her career, Ms. Ricard has consistently treated every student in her classroom with respect and dignity; unfortunately, the school district has not treated Ms. Ricard with similar good faith or basic fairness.”

Ricard is asking to have her disciplinary record cleared and is seeking “nominal damages.”

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