By Sofia Saric
Casper Star-Tribune 

Judge allows lawsuit to continue: Parents suing district over using students' preferred pronouns and names


December 28, 2023

Via Wyoming News Exchange

CASPER — A federal judge ruled that a Sweetwater County teacher who is suing the school district over using students’ preferred pronouns and names is not entitled to First Amendment protections when it comes to her duties at work.

Ashley Willey is not speaking as a citizen when she is working as a teacher, U.S. District Judge Scott W. Skavdahl ruled on Monday. She is speaking as a public employee while engaged in official duties, and “referring to a student by their chosen or preferred names in a classroom, pursuant to a school district policy, is part of a teacher’s official duties,” Skavdahl ruled.

On the other hand, Willey and her husband Sean “sufficiently” pleaded or alleged several other constitutional violations.

The legal battle is likely far from over; Skavdahl’s ruling simply means a majority of the Willeys’ claims will be allowed to continue through the courts after the school district asked for the entire lawsuit to be dismissed this summer.

Earlier this year, the Willeys filed the lawsuit against the Sweetwater County School District No. 1 board of trustees, Superintendent Kelly McGovern, school administrators and three other districts for affirming their child’s transgender identity without their knowledge at Black Butte High School in Rock Springs, the federal filing shows.

Ashley is a teacher in her child’s former school district, too. She also sued over the district’s “non-negotiable” policies, which required teachers to use a student’s preferred pronouns and “respect the privacy of all students regarding such choice,” the federal order states.

Ashley argued those policies went against her religious beliefs.

The United States Supreme Court made a ruling on discrimination based on sexual preference or gender identity three years ago, which led to President Joe Biden and the Department of Education moving to eliminate gender-identity discrimination in schools, the order states.

Educational institutions across America, including Sweetwater County School District No. 1, updated policies to allow students to use their preferred pronouns to comply with federal guidelines.

“This policy serves as the basis for the conflict now...” the order states.

At the beginning of the 2021 school year, the Willeys’ child asked teachers to use masculine pronouns and a “male name.” The teachers did not inform the Willeys, which was in line with the district’s policy. Ashley found out in March 2022 about the name and pronoun change, the order states. She explained to school staff that this went against her “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

She also accused Black Butte staff of encouraging her child to participate in lies.

According to the order, the district’s policy also affected Ashley in her capacity as a school employee. She protested implementing it herself, but the school district required that she abide because staff and administration were not allowed to make “decisions on personal and religious beliefs,” the order states.

This year, the district amended its policy. Staff are now encouraged to involve parents and guardians in the conversation unless the student’s health or safety are at risk, and staff were provided the potential for religious accommodations.

Ashley still works in the district, but her child no longer attends school in Wyoming.

Although the Willeys sufficiently pleaded a violation of their fundamental rights to direct the upbringing of their children and free exercise of religion, they are limited on what kind of damages they can pursue going forward, Skavdahl ruled.

All cases must center around “an active dispute with real world consequences,” and the Willeys’ child is not a student at Black Butte High School anymore, the order states. In other words, the alleged offense is no longer happening to their child.

The school district argued that Ashley lacks standing in the claims based upon her personal experiences as a teacher. The defendants argued that Ashley had not identified any instance in which she had been asked to agree to use a student’s chosen pronouns, and she was never denied a reasonable accommodation based on religion.

Skavadahl ruled that Ashley sufficiently alleged “an injury” under the school district’s initial 2022 policy. The defendants failed to allow Ashley a religious accommodation, which is supported in the evidence, even after explaining her religious beliefs.

The district’s updated 2023 policy “tries to be more accommodating,” but Ashley has alleged the school system “threatened to discipline District staff who do not use students’ preferred pronouns,” the order states.

Skavadahl found “that this threatened injury is ‘real, immediate and direct.”

There may have been a violation of Ashley’s right to free exercise of religion as a teacher, but there was no violation of her free speech, Skavadahl ruled.

This story was published on December 26, 2023.


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