A judge will weigh Florida’s restrictions on pronouns in schools

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Illustration of gender pronouns by Ekaterina Tveitan via iStock for WMNF News.

By Jim Saunders ©2024 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — A federal judge Friday will hear arguments in an attempt by a transgender teacher and a nonbinary teacher to block part of a 2023 law that restricts pronouns and titles that educators can use in Florida public schools.

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker will consider motions for a preliminary injunction as part of a lawsuit that contends the restrictions violate a federal civil rights law and the First Amendment.

Plaintiffs Katie Wood, a transgender Hillsborough County teacher, and AV Schwandes, a nonbinary teacher fired last year by Florida Virtual School, are seeking the injunction. Wood’s injunction motion, for example, said she has been prevented from using the title “Ms.” and she/her pronouns.

“(The state law) unlawfully requires Ms. Wood to stay silent about or misrepresent a basic element of how she presents herself to the world and conceives of herself — one as fundamental as her name, race, or religion,” the motion, filed in December, said. “In addition to the distress this restriction has caused her, the new regime has disrupted her classroom and confused her students.”

The restrictions are part of a series of measures, championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature, that have targeted transgender and other LGBTQ people in recent years. Attorneys for the state in a February court document argued Walker should reject the injunction requests.

“(The section of the law) is part of comprehensive legislation aimed to promote the state’s pedagogical goals and vindicate parental rights,” the state filing said. “It is an integral part of plaintiffs’ job duties to further the state’s pedagogical agenda in interactions with students. If the First Amendment guaranteed teachers the right to ignore pedagogical-based directives while inside the schoolhouse, K-12 education would become unworkable.”

The case centers on part of the 2023 law that says a school employee “may not provide to a student his or her preferred personal title or pronouns if such preferred personal title or pronouns do not correspond to his or her sex.” The state defines sex as what was assigned at birth.

Attorneys from the Southern Poverty Law Center, Southern Legal Counsel and the law firm Altshuler Berzon LLP filed the lawsuit and named as plaintiffs Wood, Schwandes and a Lee County teacher identified as Jane Doe. The lawsuit names numerous defendants, including the state Department of Education, the State Board of Education, the Hillsborough County School Board, the Lee County School Board and the Florida Virtual School Board of Trustees.

In addition to the First Amendment, the lawsuit alleges that the pronoun restrictions violate what is known as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because they discriminate based on sex.

“Under (the state law’s) regime, although Ms. Wood, as a transgender woman, uses the title Ms. and she/her pronouns in every other aspect of her life, she faces revocation of her license and loss of her job for identifying herself as who she is because her sex is deemed male under the statute,” Wood’s preliminary injunction motion said. “Yet she would be free to use that same title and those same pronouns if her sex were deemed female. This sex-dependent outcome is precisely what Title VII prohibits.”

But in the February document, attorneys for the state said that “like any other topic, states and localities can choose how they want to address that topic in their public schools. Some may require teachers to use preferred pronouns. … Others may allow teachers to choose how to use preferred pronouns. And others, like Florida, may prohibit teachers from using preferred pronouns.”

“The choice of Florida’s elected leaders may arouse strong feelings and condemnation from those that disagree with it. But a state’s pedagogical choice to adhere to ‘the Supreme Court’s longstanding recognition that sex … is an immutable characteristic,’ does not constitute discrimination under Title VII or violate the First Amendment,” the state’s lawyers from the firm Consovoy McCarthy PLLC wrote, partially quoting a legal precedent.

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