A teacher in Kansas has received a $95,000 settlement after she was suspended by her former employer for refusing to use a student’s preferred name and pronoun.
Pamela Ricard, who taught math at Fort Riley Middle School before she retired in May, was suspended for three days by the school in April 2021 and received a formal written reprimand that same month for “addressing a biologically female student by the student’s legal and enrolled last name,” according to a lawsuit that Ricard filed in March against school officials (pdf).
In an Aug. 31 statement, Alliance Defending Freedom announced that Fort Riley Middle School officials “have agreed to pay $95,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees for violating a math teacher’s First Amendment rights when they reprimanded and suspended her for addressing a student by the student’s legal and enrolled name and forced her to conceal the student’s social transition from the student’s parents.”
Attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom and Kriegshauser Ney Law Group represented Ricard in her lawsuit.
As part of the settlement, school officials agreed to issue a statement that Ricard was in good standing without any disciplinary actions against her at the time she retired in May, Alliance Defending Freedom announced in a statement.
Because of the settlement, attorneys for Alliance Defending Freedom filed a dismissal (pdf) of the case on Aug. 31.
School Board Denied Appeal
According to the account of events, a school counselor emailed Ricard in early April 2021 to say that a student asked the school counselor to tell Ricard to refer to them by their preferred first name and the pronouns he/him, which are different from the student’s biological female sex and from the student’s enrolled name.
Following the email, Ricard decided to refer to the student as “Miss [legal last name]” and was disciplined by the school for doing so with a three-day suspension and reprimand. She appealed the discipline in July to the superintendent and the Geary County Schools USD 475 Board of Education.
At a closed board hearing in August 2021 over her employee discipline, Ricard said her decision to use”Miss [legal last name]” instead of using the student’s preferred first name was “intended to be respectful to the student without compromising Ms. Ricard’s own conscience and religious beliefs.”
At the hearing, Ricard also requested a religious accommodation, asking if she could continue to address students by their names but refrain from using preferred pronouns or other gender-specific language when they don’t match the student’s biological sex.
On Sept. 7, 2021, the school board voted to unanimously deny Ricard’s disciplinary appeal, as well as deny her request for a religious accommodation. At the same hearing, members of the board “adopted a new district-wide policy expressly mandating the use of students’ preferred names and pronouns.”
First Amendment Rights
Ricard’s attorneys stated in the complaint that any policy that requires her to refer to a student by a “gendered, non-binary, or plural pronoun … or other gendered language that is different from the student’s biological sex” actively violates her religious beliefs.
“Ms. Ricard is a Christian and holds sincere religious beliefs consistent with the traditional Christian and biblical understanding of the human person and biological sex. Ms. Ricard believes that God created human beings as either male or female, that this sex is fixed in each person from the moment of conception, and that it cannot be changed, regardless of an individual person’s feelings, desires, or preferences,” the complaint reads.
The suit states that school officials “have retaliated against Ms. Ricard for exercising her First Amendment rights, including her right [to] not be compelled to engage in particular speech or expression, have violated her First Amendment rights to free speech and free exercise of religion, have violated the unconstitutional conditions doctrine, have deprived her of due process and equal protection of law, and have breached their contract with her.
“Thus, this action concerns the denial of Ms. Ricard’s fundamental and clearly established rights under the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment, the unconstitutional conditions doctrine, and the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.”
Alliance Defending Freedom hailed the settlement as “a victory for free speech at public schools.”
“No school district should ever force teachers to willfully deceive parents or engage in any speech that violates their deeply held religious beliefs,” Tyson Langhofer, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, said in a statement.
“We’re pleased to settle this case favorably on behalf of Pam, and we hope that it will encourage school districts across the country to support the constitutionally protected freedom of teachers to teach and communicate honestly with both children and parents.”
Reginald Eggleston, superintendent of Geary County Schools USD 475, and Kathleen Brennan, principal of Fort Riley Middle School, didn’t respond by press time to requests from The Epoch Times for comment. The Geary County School District had declined to comment when reached by The Hill.
The case is Ricard v. USD 475 Geary County Schools School Board Members, No 5:22-cv-04015.