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In the last year and a half, multiple courts have ruled against government bodies that tried to force citizens to affirm transgender ideology—the idea that what really defines who we are is not our sex, but our gender identity. According to this ideology, a male who identifies as a woman is really a woman and must be called by feminine names and pronouns.
Yet voices in the mainstream media, such as the editorial board of The Washington Post, seem to believe that the courts have it wrong, and that all teachers who decline to use transgender pronouns are hateful people who are unfit to teach. This couldn’t be any further from the truth.
The Post editorial highlights Dr. Nicholas Meriwether, who in March received a 3–0 win from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit. As a philosophy professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio, he has long addressed male students as “Mr.” or “sir” and female students as “Ms.” or “ma’am.”
In 2018, a male student informed Dr. Meriwether that he identified as a woman and would get Dr. Meriwether fired if he did not address the student as such.
As a devout Christian and thoughtful philosophy professor, Dr. Meriwether recognized that addressing a male as a female would be endorsing an ideology that he believes is false. Still, Dr. Meriwether wants to treat all students with respect. Therefore, he offered to refer to this student by last name—to accommodate the student while not violating his own conscience.
Months later, the university responded by punishing Dr. Meriwether, and Alliance Defending Freedom has represented him in court ever since.
Conveniently, like other dishonest accounts, the Post editorial omits the fact that Dr. Meriwether made a good-faith effort to accommodate the student. The issue in this lawsuit, as stated by The Post, is “whose rights take priority when a transgender students’ demands for respect and recognition conflict with a teacher’s personal views or religious beliefs.” This framing, too, is misleading, because it presumes the content of the “rights” at stake, and that they “conflict” when actually an accommodation exists. Even if the framing were accurate, the legal argument still falls flat.
At times, people can avoid gendered terms and converse without anyone either feeling disrespected or having to contradict their sincerely held beliefs. But when that is not possible, it’s clear that those like Dr. Meriwether should have the upper hand in court.
When a right enumerated in the Constitution, the bedrock of our republic, conflicts with an interest, a right, or an alleged “right” that is not in the Constitution, the constitutional right always prevails in a legal dispute. This is “Con Law 101,” and transgender activists offer no reason that they should get a special advantage over everyone else. So the free speech and free exercise rights of a professor should prevail over a transgender-identifying person’s demand that other people affirm his asserted gender identity (and the underlying ideological claims about the relationship between sex and gender identity that go along with it).
Accordingly, a Virginia state court earlier this month issued an order reinstating physical education teacher Tanner Cross after the Loudoun County School District suspended him. Mr. Cross attended a public school board meeting where the board invited public comment on a proposed policy that would require teachers to address “gender-expansive or transgender” elementary students with whatever pronouns the students specify. Cross attended the meeting in his personal capacity and respectfully explained why he disagreed with the proposed policy. Two days later, he was suspended from work and banned from all school district events.
In his famous essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell observed, “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.… Thus political language has to consistent largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”
While universally true, those words may hold the most merit when applied to how transgender activists seek to transform the English language. That’s why Dr. Meriwether’s good-faith compromise got him punished. That’s why the most recent version of the pro-abortion “Women’s Reproductive Health Act” (itself a euphemistic title) refers to a “person capable of becoming pregnant” rather than a “woman.” And it’s why USA Today bowed to the mob and censored female athlete Chelsea Mitchell for saying “male” competitors had unfairly defeated her.
War is not peace, freedom is not slavery, and men cannot change their DNA to become women. The core claim of transgender ideology is just that—ideology. But the government cannot force people to believe or affirm an ideology they do not hold. Our nation’s courts are recognizing as much, and our educational and journalistic institutions would be wise to follow suit.
Travis C. Barham is senior counsel with the Center for Academic Freedom at Alliance Defending Freedom (@Alliance Defends), which represents Dr. Nicholas Meriwether in Meriwether v. Hartop and Tanner Cross in Cross v. Loudoun County School Board.
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