116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
My K-12 alma mater has been in the news lately, due to circumstances I can only describe as unfortunate.
Last month, the Linn-Mar Community School District adopted policy 504.13 and its regulatory language to “put into policy for easy reference” existing procedures that comply with Iowa Civil Rights code and federal Title IX guidelines. They include allowing students to use restrooms and changing facilities that correspond with their gender identity, regardless of biological sex. It also describes a Gender Support Plan that establishes a student’s right to adopt a different name and gender identity at school without a legal change to either — and without parental knowledge or consent.
It’s understandable that most of the parents who spoke at the board meeting were appalled to learn what the policy entails. I, too find it disgusting that kids as young as 12 are allowed to choose their gender, choose their “preferred pronouns,” and expect that their peers and teachers affirm those choices while keeping it a secret from their parents.
But as if the potential consequences of biological boys and girls coexisting in intimate spaces wasn’t enough for a parent to consider, the potential consequences of failing to affirm a student’s chosen gender identity, such as not using a student’s preferred pronouns, could also prove problematic.
Take “misgendering” for example. Linn-Mar Administrative Regulation 504.13R defines misgendering as “[w]hen a person intentionally or accidentally uses the incorrect name or pronouns to refer to a person.” It also stipulates that “[r]epeated or intentional misgendering is a form of bullying and harassment,” meaning that students could face serious disciplinary action for not complying. That disciplinary action, according to Linn-Mar’s anti-bullying policy, “may include suspension and expulsion.”
I’m not suggesting here that a student is going to automatically be suspended or expelled for not using every student’s preferred pronouns. But the wording of Linn-Mar’s gender inclusion policy still appears to go beyond just malice to describe misgendering and potentially extend to simple difficulty at remembering each person’s preferred pronouns. Yet who would blame a person for having trouble keeping it all straight, especially if some choose the made-up words “zie,” “zem,” “vis” and “ver” as their preferred pronouns?
Not surprisingly at all, submitting to use of atypical pronouns can be difficult for even a socially and emotionally mature adult. Proper use of language predisposes us to refer to someone as “him,” “her,” “sir” or “ma’am” based on whether they have a masculine or feminine appearance. There’s a reason for that — it is almost always correct. Proper grammar moves us to use the pronouns “they” and “them” only when speaking of a non-specific person; it is ungrammatical to refer to a specific individual as such.
Using a non-gender-conforming person’s preferred pronouns communicates the idea that some people are of a different gender than their biological sex. For some, communicating that idea is a violation of their conscience. Punishing a student who refuses to betray their conscience could not only have a detrimental effect on their education, it could also infringe on their own civil rights. Courts have held time and time again that a person or group cannot be compelled by government to express a message with which they disagree.
In 1995, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled a veterans’ organization had a First Amendment right to refuse to allow a gay/lesbian/bisexual group to participate in their annual parade because the organization disapproved of the group’s message. In the court’s opinion, Justice David Souter wrote that the government “may not compel affirmance of a belief with which the speaker disagrees.”
In 1943, The Supreme Court declared that it was unconstitutional for public schools to compel students to salute the American flag after two students of the Jehovah's Witness faith were expelled from their West Virginia school for refusing to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, which was expressly prohibited by their religion.
And just last year, in Meriwether v. Hartop et al., the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Shawnee State University in Ohio discriminated against philosophy professor Nicolas Meriwether, finding that the university discriminated against his right to free speech and free exercise of religion when concerns he raised about the required use of preferred pronouns violating his religious beliefs were met with hostility and disciplinary action. After the ruling, the university settled with Meriwether to the tune of $400,000.
Since the government has routinely upheld a person's right to refuse to engage in speech with which they disagree, including mandatory use of preferred pronouns, I can’t help but find it concerning that Linn-Mar’s new policy requiring said pronouns does not also include any guidance regarding potential situations in which a student feels that compliance violates their conscience.
Given the absence of that guidance, I wonder: how will the school district address conflicts under the new gender identity policy as it relates to a student’s right to free expression and exercise of religion? Will students and parents be able to proactively work with the district to have those concerns addressed? Or will those issues only be resolved in the form of difficult disciplinary procedures or costly legal battles?
The question might not be as far-fetched as it seems. In late March, three eighth-grade students at Kiel Middle School in Kiel, Wisconsin were named in a formal complaint of harassment by their school’s Title IX coordinator. Their alleged offense? “Mispronouning,” as it was written on the form. The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty has stepped in to represent the students and their families.
None of this is to say that a preferred pronouns shouldn’t be used by those who are eager and willing to use them. Most proponents of free speech endorse voluntary use of terminology designed to foster inclusiveness and even believe that it can promote understanding among those not connected to LGBTQ culture. Mandating that terminology under threat of punishment will have the opposite effect and continue to stoke divisions. Acceptance will never be achieved by force.
That being said, I disagree with the notion that Linn-Mar’s new policy was passed to inflict an agenda on students, teachers, and parents and urge families to consider that the district likely had no choice. State and federal law places certain requirements on any school that receives funding, including Linn-Mar. Schools meet those requirements in part by establishing policies and procedures. Knowing that, it's not difficult to understand why this language was added to board policy, regardless of the breadth of its potential consequences.
Regardless of whether they themselves realize it, the outcry from parents isn’t because of a new policy or sudden change in the law. It’s because they’re facing the reality that their children are growing up in an environment that embraces ideology over common sense. The school I loved for 13 years values the law. I hope they still value reason.
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