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Religion and the Law

Teacher Has Free Exercise Clause Right to Tell Parents About Their Children's "Preferred Names and Pronouns,"

despite a school policy that generally bars teachers from doing so. (For my views on the question, see the end of the post.)


In Judge Holly Teeter (D. Kan.) in Ricard v. USD 475 Geary County, KS School Bd., decided Monday, plaintiff challenged the "Communications with Parents Policy," which "prohibits employees from revealing to parents that a student has requested use of a preferred name or different set of pronouns at school 'unless the student requests the administration or a counselor to do so, per Federal FERPA [Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act] guidance.'"

In application, the policy prohibits teachers not only from initiating communication with parents for the express purpose of disclosing preferred names and pronouns, but it also prohibits teachers from revealing preferred names and pronouns as part of a communication with parents about an unrelated matter, such as grades or attendance. It is this latter application of the policy from which Plaintiff seeks relief. {Plaintiff disclaims any plan to affirmatively reach out to parents for the purpose of telling them that their child is using preferred names or pronouns.}

And the court concluded that plaintiff was entitled to a Free Exercise Clause exemption from this policy:

[1.] Here, Plaintiff demonstrates that the Communication with Parents Policy burdens her exercise of religion. Plaintiff has testified that she is a Christian and believes the Bible prohibits dishonesty and lying. She believes it is a form of dishonesty to converse with parents of a child using one name and set of pronouns when the child is using and being referred to at school by a different name and pronouns, unbeknownst to the parents. The Court finds Plaintiff's testimony concerning her religious beliefs to be credible and subjectively sincere.

Plaintiff has also demonstrated that, as part of her job, she regularly communicates with parents, whether by email or in person. In fact, she has had to communicate in writing with the parents of a transgender student earlier this year, and it is highly likely she will further communicate with transgender students' parents before the end of the academic year. Neither of Plaintiff's transgender students have authorized the District to disclose their preferred names and pronouns to their parents. Plaintiff would face the Hobbesian choice of complying with the District's policy and violating her religious beliefs, or abiding by her religious beliefs and facing discipline.

The District counters that its policy does not require Plaintiff to use any student's name or pronouns in conversations with parents—it merely prohibits Plaintiff from revealing to a student's parents a preferred name or pronouns the student is using at school if the student has not authorized the parents to know. Thus, argues the District, Plaintiff can simply refer to students in conversation with parents as "your child" or "your student," never referring to the child by name or pronoun.

But Plaintiff has testified to her belief that having a conversation with parents about a child, and not disclosing the name and pronouns used at school, is itself a form of "conceal[ment]"—a material omission if you will—given Plaintiff's belief that parents have a fundamental right to control the upbringing of their children. Moreover, it is simply unrealistic to suppose that a teacher can communicate with parents about their child and never refer to the child by name or pronoun. Such a system would be "impossible to comply with," and when Plaintiff "slipped up," she could face discipline. This Court agrees that Plaintiff's religious rights "do not hinge on such a precarious balance." Therefore, the Court finds Plaintiff has demonstrated continued application of the Communication with Parents Policy to her burdens her religious exercise.

{Plaintiff's subjective perception that this is "conceal[ment]" is not fanciful. The District grants parents access to its Skyward system. When a parent logs in, Skyward displays certain information about their child, including the child's legal name as reflected on District records and any preferred name the parent has disclosed to the District. The Skyward database also contains preferred names and pronouns that students are using at school but that parents may be unaware of. Although the District's administrators and teachers can see these preferred names and pronouns when they login into Skyward, this data is not populated and visible in the version of Skyward that parents are granted access to.} …

[2.] The Court [also] concludes the policy is not generally applicable because the District has created multiple exceptions that either necessitate consideration of the putative violator's intent or the District has exempted conduct for secular reasons but is unwilling to exempt Plaintiff for religious reasons.

First, testimony at the hearing established that at least a "couple" of other District employees had inadvertently disclosed to parents the preferred name or pronouns of children who had not authorized the District to disclose this information to parents. The District stated that such persons were not disciplined for violating the policy despite the policy's language drawing no distinction between unintentional or purposeful violations. Thus, in the District's practice, to determine whether the policy has been violated by a particular disclosure, the District must determine whether the putative violator intended to violate the policy or not.

Second, while the policy by its terms would prohibit any disclosure of a child's preferred name and pronouns to parents absent a child's permission, the District admitted at the hearing that if parents requested copies of education records that included information concerning preferred names and preferred pronouns, the District would disclose the information to parents without a child's permission because the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) requires it. Thus, the District is willing to make an exception for the secular purpose of complying with federal law, but not religious reasons.

Third, at the hearing, the Court asked what the District would expect a teacher to do if, during a conversation with parents, parents specifically asked the teacher if their child was being addressed at school by a preferred name or pronouns. The District's counsel indicated that such a teacher should refer the parents to an administrator and the administrator would then answer the question and disclose the requested information in a subsequent conversation or meeting. But the policy does not facially carve out administrators from its scope. Thus, the District has created another exemption in practice for administrators to disclose information when necessary for the secular purpose of responding to a parent's direct question, but again is unwilling to grant an exemption for religious purposes. {Of course, some parents may be totally ignorant of the fact that their minor child is being called by a different name and pronouns at school, in which case they would never know to ask for education records. Under the District's practice, it is only those parents who affirmatively ask the right question who would receive this information. This seems rather inconsistent with the District's stated position that parents are "full partners in their child's education."}

{As explained by Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, the Court must consider whether the secular exemption undermines the District's asserted interests in a similar way. As discussed below, the District told parents the policy was adopted for the purpose of complying with FERPA. But, as also discussed below, FERPA does not restrict parental access to student records; to the contrary, it requires a school district to provide education records to parents whether a child wants the records disclosed or not. Thus, allowing an administrator to disclose to parents because they asked is no less a violation of the District's flawed understanding of FERPA than if the District allowed a teacher to disclose for religious reasons. The District later articulated it did not want preferred name and pronoun information disclosed because it is not the District's "place" to "out" students to parents who might disagree with the child's desire to go by a preferred name or pronoun. This stated interest is undermined just as much by an administrator disclosing the information to parents who ask, as it is by a teacher doing so when necessary to avoid a religious conflict.}

[3.] Because the Communication with Parents Policy is not generally applicable, the District has the burden to demonstrate the policy is justified by "interests of the highest order"—a so-called, "compelling" interest—and that the policy in question is "narrowly tailored" to achieve those interests. When operating under a strict scrutiny standard, the Court must consider the genuine interest that the District believed supported the policy when it adopted the policy.

To that point, the policy was announced by the District's Superintendent, Dr. Reginald Eggleston in an email dated October 7, 2021, and sent to all parents and guardians. That email stated, in pertinent part, "USD 475 will not communicate [preferred names and pronouns] to parents unless the student requests the administration or counselor to do so, per FERPA guidelines." Thus, the District told parents that the reason for its policy was to comply with FERPA. There is no reason to believe the District told parents one thing, while having a hidden, subjective motivation it did not disclose. Therefore, the Court accepts the October 7, 2021 email as an accurate explanation of the District's contemporaneous justification for adopting the policy.

The problem for the District is that FERPA does not prohibit the District from communicating with parents about their minor child's preferred name and pronouns. To the contrary, FERPA is a law that specifically empowers parents to receive information about their minor students; it mandates the District to make education records available to parents upon request—whether the child wants their parents to have the records or not. See 34 C.F.R. § 99.10(a) ("Except as limited under § 99.12, a parent or eligible student must be given the opportunity to inspect and review the student's education records" (emphasis added)).

And FERPA does not exempt from its disclosure obligation education records that deal with preferred names and pronouns. Thus, the District's contemporaneous justification for adopting the policy is predicated on an erroneous understanding of the law. And the District's statement to parents that "FERPA guidelines" prevented the District from disclosing preferred name and pronoun information without a child's permission, was misleading. The District could not have a legitimate, compelling interest in withholding information based on FERPA when FERPA in fact required the District to disclose the very information at issue—at least to the extent the information was contained in an education record.

Even if the Court were to consider the post hoc explanation the District has given in the context of this litigation, the Court still concludes that the District has failed to establish the Communication with Parents Policy is supported by a compelling interest. Specifically, at the hearing, the District's administrator took the position it was not the District's place to "out" a student to their "parents." And the District's counsel argued that "if the home life is such that the —the student doesn't want to be out to their parents, it's not our job to do it."

But as noted above, federal policy as evidenced by FERPA is that parents do have a right of access to information held by the school about their minor children. Moreover, even if FERPA did not mandate that schools make education records available to parents who ask for them, the fact that it is not the school's duty to disclose information to parents does not mean the school has a compelling interest in directing teachers to withhold or conceal such information and punishing teachers if they violate the policy.

Moreover, as the District conceded at the hearing, parents in the United States have a constitutional right to control the upbringing of their children. This is not a trivial right—it is a fundamental one that is "perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests" recognized by the Supreme Court. It rests on a fundamental premise that a child is "not the mere creature of the State," and that parents—"those who nurture him and direct his destiny"— "have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations." It is difficult to envision why a school would even claim—much less how a school could establish—a generalized interest in withholding or concealing from the parents of minor children, information fundamental to a child's identity, personhood, and mental and emotional well-being such as their preferred name and pronouns.

Presumably, the District may be concerned that some parents are unsupportive of their child's desire to be referred to by a name other than their legal name. Or the District may be concerned that some parents will be unsupportive, if not contest, the use of pronouns for their child that the parent views as discordant with a child's biological sex.

But this merely proves the point that the District's claimed interest is an impermissible one because it is intended to interfere with the parents' exercise of a constitutional right to raise their children as they see fit. And whether the District likes it or not, that constitutional right includes the right of a parent to have an opinion and to have a say in what a minor child is called and by what pronouns they are referred.

The Court can envision that a school would have a compelling interest in refusing to disclose information about preferred names or pronouns where there is a particularized and substantiated concern that disclosure to a parent could lead to child abuse, neglect, or some other illegal conduct. Indeed, at least in Kansas, were such a case to arise, a school would likely have to report the matter to the Department for Children and Families. But the District has not articulated such an interest here—either abstractly or in the case of the specific students in Plaintiff's class. {To be clear, there is no evidence in the record that the transgender students in Plaintiff's class are at risk of harm from their parents.} Even if the District had articulated an interest in preventing abuse by a parent (that is, abuse as the law defines it, and not simply as an administrator might subjectively perceive it), the Communication with Parents Policy would not be narrowly tailored to achieve such an interest. The policy is overinclusive because it prohibits the disclosure of preferred name and pronoun information to parents without any assessment of whether disclosure would actually pose a risk. Moreover, the policy would also be underinclusive insofar as it permits administrators to disclose preferred name and pronoun information to parents simply if parents ask, and without any determination whether such disclosure poses a risk to the child. An appropriately tailored policy would, instead, make an individualized assessment whether there is a particularized and substantiated concern of real harm—as opposed to generalized concern of parental disagreement—and prohibit disclosure only in those limited instances.

Because the Communication with Parents Policy substantially [burdens] Plaintiff's exercise of religious rights, is not generally applicable, and fails both prongs of the strict scrutiny analysis, the Court finds that Plaintiff has demonstrated a substantial likelihood of success on her free exercise claim as it concerns this policy.

Plaintiff also challenged "the District's Preferred Names and Pronouns Policy," which provides that, "Students will be called by their preferred name and pronouns." But that question has for now been resolved because the school district takes the view that "(1) an employee is not required to use preferred pronouns and may refer to students only by their preferred first name, provided the employee elects not to use pronouns for any student; and (2) inadvertent or unintentional use of pronouns to refer to some students, where an employee's standard practice is to refer to all students only by preferred first name, will not transform the employee's standard practice into a policy violation," and plaintiff has no objection to this.

[* * *]

My view: I doubt that schools should generally conceal this sort of information from parents, but that's a policy judgment. As a constitutional matter, even if the Free Exercise Clause is read as securing a presumptive right to religious exemptions from laws that have various secular exceptions—and the exemptions can be denied only if the denial passes "strict scrutiny"—I think the Clause has to operate differently when it comes to government employees and their workplace rules.

After all, the Free Speech Clause presumptively prohibits content-based speech restrictions, unless they pass strict scrutiny, but when the government is acting as employer the matter is different: The government can generally

  1. dictate what speech the employee says or doesn't say as part of the employee's job duties, Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006) (at least setting aside the possibly special scenario of public university professors, who may be protected by a special academic freedom principle even as to teaching, and especially as to scholarship),
  2. fire or otherwise discipline the employee based on speech that isn't on a matter of public concern, Connick v. Myers (1983),
  3. and fire or otherwise discipline the employee based on speech when the damage caused by the speech to the efficiency of the government agency's operation does not outweigh the value of the speech to the employee and the public, Pickering v. Bd. of Ed. (1968).

How that should be adapted to the Free Exercise Clause as to items 2 or 3 is complicated, since it's hard to figure out whether religious practices are "on a matter of public concern" or how valuable they are to the employee. But item 1—the principle that the Free Speech Clause doesn't generally give employees a right to decide what to say or not to say when speaking as part of their jobs—seems to carry over well to the Free Exercise Clause. And that remains so, I think, even if the employer policy has some secular exemptions, or hasn't been implemented completely consistently. (See Part III.A of this article for some more thoughts on this.) This is especially true if giving a Free Exercise Clause exemption to the government employees would mean that religiously motivated speech, as in this case, would be treated better by the courts than secularly motivated speech, which itself may be discrimination among speech that should be seen as inconsistent with the Free Speech Clause.

Title VII's religious accommodation principle may, by statute, protect objections to job duties. but that imposes a much lower burden on the employer to overcome (that denying the accommodation will avoid an "undue hardship" on the employer, rather than that it's narrowly tailored to a compelling government interest), and is any event a matter of legislative choice, not constitutional command.

In any event, though, that's just my (tentative) analysis; obviously the court did not agreed with me.