Kansas district settles lawsuit over student pronouns

Aug 31, 2022, 2:46 AM | Updated: 3:17 pm

A Kansas school district will pay a former middle school teacher $95,000 to settle a lawsuit she filed after she was disciplined for refusing to use a student’s preferred pronouns, her attorneys announced Wednesday.

Pamela Ricard, a former math teacher at Fort Riley Middle School, sued the Geary County School District in March after she was reprimanded and suspended for three days in the spring of 2021. She said the district’s policies on preferred pronouns violated her religious beliefs.

Ricard said the district denied her request for a religious exemption to its policy that teachers use students’ preferred names and pronouns in school. Teachers also were told to conceal a student’s preference by using legal names when addressing parents, if that was the student’s wish, according to the lawsuit.

“No school district should ever force teachers to willfully deceive parents or engage in any speech that violates their deeply held religious beliefs,” said Tyson Langhofer, the director of the Alliance Defending Freedom Center for Academic Freedom, which filed the lawsuit along with the Kriegshauser Ney Law Group.

Geary County School District officials declined to comment Wednesday and an attorney for the district did not immediately return messages. The school is in Fort Riley, a U.S. Army base about 130 miles (210 kilometers) west of Kansas City.

Ricard, who taught at the school since 2005, addressed 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.

Ricard believes 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,” the lawsuit says.

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.

The district’s Board of Education last 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.

A federal judge in May allowed Ricard’s lawsuit to proceed, saying she was likely to prevail on her free exercise of religion claim. The judge granted her motion to halt enforcement of the parental communication part of the policy and allowed her to continue addressing students by their preferred names while avoiding pronouns consistent with their preferences.

After that ruling, the school board voted to revoke the parental communications policy, according to Ricard’s attorneys.

The school district did not respond to a question Wednesday about its current policy.

Ricard retired in May, in part because of the dispute and partly to be closer to her family in Oklahoma, where she is now teaching, her attorneys said. As part of the settlement, the district agreed to issue a statement that she was in good standing without any disciplinary actions against her.

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Kansas district settles lawsuit over student pronouns