A judge will decide on Florida’s teacher pronoun law

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

By Dara Kam ©2024 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — A federal judge on Friday heard arguments in a court battle over a law restricting educators’ use of personal pronouns and titles in schools, in one of a series of challenges to Florida policies targeting LGBTQ people.

Plaintiffs Katie Wood, a transgender Hillsborough County teacher, and AV Schwandes, a nonbinary teacher fired last year by Florida Virtual School, are seeking preliminary injunctions as part of a lawsuit challenging the 2023 law, passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The challenge alleges the law violates the teachers’ First Amendment rights and runs afoul of a federal civil rights law.

Attorneys for the Florida Department of Education and other defendants asked Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the Legislature has discretion to “promote the state’s pedagogical goals and vindicate parental rights.”

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.

The law is intended to avoid confusion “about the immutable, biological nature of sex,” attorneys for the state argued in a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

“Teachers providing to students biologically incongruous pronouns undermines the state’s policy regarding sex,” attorneys from the firm Consovoy McCarthy PLLC wrote in a brief filed March 11.

A preliminary injunction motion filed by Wood said she has been prevented from using the title “Ms.” and “she/her” pronouns.

Sam Boyd, an attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center who represents the plaintiffs, on Friday argued that it was “absurd” to maintain that a “law that requires a teacher who identifies as and presents as a woman to use male pronouns prevents confusion” or advances the state’s interests.

Pronouns and titles are integral components of a transgender person’s identity, Boyd said

“Their pronouns are probably the most central aspect of their transgender identity,” Boyd added. “To be a woman in our society is to be referred to as female.”

The “purpose and effect” of the law is to “discriminate against transgender and nonbinary people,” Diego Soto, also with the Southern Poverty Law Center, argued.

But Brian Weir, who represents the state, said the law was not intended to discriminate against anyone.

“Sex, like race and national origin, is an immutable characteristic determined solely by accident of birth,” Weir said, quoting from previous court rulings.

Arguing against the preliminary injunction, Weir said the plaintiffs haven’t demonstrated “irreparable harm” from the law. He also pointed to what he called a “delay” in the request for an injunction, which was filed four months after the law went into effect.

Walker asked a series of questions about the time lag, noting Wood “effectively served … for almost the entire semester before she sought relief.”

Wood, who has worked as a teacher in Hillsborough County since 2021, transitioned as a woman around 2020, had her name legally changed and lives as a woman, the lawsuit said. The state issued a teaching certificate in her legal name, Katie Wood. According to the lawsuit, county officials initially “were supportive of her transgender status and her female gender identity and expression.”

Since the law went into effect, the principal at Wood’s school and the county school board told her she could no longer be called “Ms.” because “her sex is deemed male.” The officials told Wood she could use the titles “Mr.,” “Teacher,” or “Coach.”

Boyd argued the law is doing “irreparable harm” to Wood.

“Ms. Wood, every day, is having to go into class and refer to herself as ‘teacher’ and be misgendered by her students out of ignorance, in some cases, to go through that process on a day-to-day basis,” Boyd said.

Schwandes, who uses they/them pronouns, was fired in October after refusing to comply with the pronoun restriction. According to the lawsuit, Schwandes is now the subject of an investigation by state education officials and could be stripped of their license.

Plaintiffs also are being represented by Southern Legal Counsel and the law firm Altshuler Berzon LLP. 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.

The state has contracted to pay the Consovoy McCarthy PLLC firm up to $507,430 for legal costs associated with the lawsuit and any subsequent appeals, according to the Department of Financial Services website.

Walker did not rule on the motions Friday and said he has trials scheduled for the next month but would “do my best to get out an order as quickly as possible.”

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