ADF attorney speaks about lawsuit against HCPS after walk out

Jumana Alsaadoon, Staff Reporter

The protester was spotted in the morning and in the afternoon, after the day of the student walk out at HHS. The sign wrote “Drag worshiping, Marxist child corrupting, Perversion”. (Photo by Jumana Alsaadoon)

“Protecting parents rights,” Lawsuit continues to gain attention after student walkout

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is a legal organization. ADF defines itself as “the world’s largest legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom….” Their headquarters is located in Scottsdale, Arizona and for the last year they have been working with six people on a lawsuit against Harrisonburg City Public Schools (HCPS). The lawsuit claims that teachers and parents are being stripped of their constitutional rights in relation to high school students’ current freedom to go by their preferred name in the school environment without required parent approval or notice.

Vincent Wagner is senior counsel with the Center of Parental Rights at ADF. He worked as a deputy solicitor for Arkansas before becoming senior counsel at ADF. Wagner describes the lawsuit with a goal of protecting parents’ rights. 

“The goal is to protect parent’s rights, not to cut out decisions about their kid’s lives.The school is keeping parents in the dark about what’s going on in their kid’s lives at school,” Wagner said. 

Another goal of this lawsuit is to protect teacher’s free speech amendment. 

“The teachers have a free speech claim and it is a well established, free speech principle in America that you can’t be compelled to say a message that you disagree with,” Wagner said. 

Wagner supports that HCPS strips teachers of the right to choose not to say a pronoun because of religious disagreement in relation to the student identity. In HCPS teaching policy teachers are instructed to say the preferred pronoun that a student goes by. Wagner also highlights an alternative way of saying someone’s preferred name.

“The lawsuit proposes an alternative that says if a student requests, we can avoid pronouns to the extent [that] we’re able to not go out of our way to use the pronouns that the student has asked us [to use],…but also not say things that violate our conscience. [That’s] a third way here, but the policy that the school board and the superintendent are pushing down teachers, [it] doesn’t actually allow for that,” Wagner said.

Wagner continues to criticize the current policy that HCPS has while pushing for reform, Wagner also details examples from his clients. 

“Science shows that kids struggling with these issues do better when their parents are involved in their lives. Our clients who want what’s best for their students, they know because of the science, because of what they’ve seen in their own lives, [for example] Ms. Deb[orah] Figliola in particular, she talks about people in her life she’s walked with as they’ve struggled with gender issues,” Wagner said.

 

The same day as the Nov. 1 hearing for this lawsuit, HHS students walked out of their classrooms in protest of the lawsuit. Senior Finn Maddox, one of the student leaders who planned the walkout, spoke out against the arguments that the ADF lawsuit made. 

“Their arguments do not really make sense because there is no expectation for teachers to lie [about] students. It’s just to protect their safety. If you do not respect that, you are losing [our] trust. As a teacher, you swore to protect students safety and by doing this you are directly going against that,” Maddox said. 

Junior Zoe King was another student who helped plan this walkout. King spoke against ADF and the lawsuit. 

“[They’re] this huge hate-group coming into Harrisonburg and trying to take away transgender-rights for trans students, [the lawsuit] puts in jeopardy the livelihood of our trans community,” King said.

However, Wagner discredits the label of ‘hate group’ to describe ADF or the lawsuit.

“That label…comes from the SPLC [Southern Poverty Law Center], which is an organization that has been discredited by a lot of mainstream media outlets and we have a lot of resources on that,” Wagner said. 

Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) defines itself as catalyst for racial justice in the South and beyond’. The center has placed ADF on a ‘hate watch’ regarding trans-rights and extremism. 

One day after the lawsuit, a protester stood on the sidewalk leading into HHS with a sign. The sign on one side said “NOT TODAY SATAN” and on the other side was written, “Degeneracy, drag worshiping, Marxist, child corrupting, perversion”. The protester was spotted at many pride parades. The protest continued until Nov. 2, before the protester stopped showing up. 

Sophomore Ruba Mustafa watched the protester on her way to school on the bus. 

“At first I was shocked. It was sad because there was this adult protesting in front of a high school, it was really unexpected,” Mustafa said. 

Mustafa recognized that the protester was within his rights, but she still disagreed with his actions. 

“He did have a right to protest, but I think it was in an inappropriate setting, especially at school as students were walking by or returning home. It made people uncomfortable,” Mustafa said. 

 After the hearing, the judge,Andrew Baughe  did not rule on the lawsuit. Both parties waited for a ruling from the judge. Some possibilities of the ruling were for the judge to rule in favor of Harrisonburg City Public Schools (HCPS), if so the case will be dismissed entirely. If the judge rules in favor of the plaintiffs, the current HCPS policy regarding trans students will be put on hold until the case continues forward. 

Wagner emphasizes the importance of the judges rule in the first hearing. 

“We’re waiting to hear from the judge [and] what he’s going to decide, it could go forward, it could go up on appeal to a higher court. There’s a lot of different paths that [it] could take, [but] that initial decision from the judge is the key first step,” Wagner said. 

 Almost a month later, Rockingham County Circuit Court Judge Andrew Baugher issued the ruling, Dec. 2. Baugher denied the temporary injunction that the plaintiffs requested. This means that the current policy on using a student’s preferred pronoun is not temporarily paused until the case goes further. Baugher’s opinion believes that the teacher’s claims to free speech and religious freedom are upheld but dismisses the parents’ claims for due process and religious freedom. 

“Teachers and staff will not face disciplinary measures if they do not use a student’s preferred name or pronoun or for sharing (or not sharing) that information with parents,” the ruling said.

The teacher’s claim against HCPS has grounds to continue in the lawsuit, but parents’ claim seems to lack evidence for Baugher

“First parent plaintiffs allege that HCPS employees are “forbidden” from notifying them “if their children were to seek to undergo social transition (Compl.p 218), but this is not a complete reading of the documents,” the ruling said. 

The ruling explains that the documents that Wagner provided did not show that parents will not be notified if their children decide to use a different pronoun or name. 

“The documents do not support Parent Plaintiff’s allegations that they will not be notified if their children seek to undergo a social transition,” the ruling said.  

However, the opinion states that teachers have shown enough evidence to show that they are being forced into affirming a message like saying someone’s preferred pronoun, which could be against their religion. 

“The complaint sets forth sufficient factual allegations that Teacher Plaintiffs are being forced to affirm a message that violates their sincerely held religious beliefs,” the ruling said. 

Sophomore Milo Hernandez-Cubas heard about the news of the judges ruling and they disagree with the claim that teachers still have grounds to sue HCPS. 

“They are not supposed to be biased, if they want to do something religious go to a christian private school,”Hernandez-Cubas said. 

Hernandez-Cubas believes that separating education from religious beliefs is vital in a school. 

“If it’s based on religious beliefs, it does not make any sense because it’s supposed to be separate from the school. I don’t think it’s fair because it’s based on the kid, it’s their life, they shouldn’t go against it,” Hernandez-Cubas said. 

Hernandez-Cubas agrees that the further this lawsuit continues, the more students feel uncomfortable. 

“[The lawsuit] makes kids at this school feel unsafe,”Hernandez-Cubas said.