Circuit Court Judge James E. Plowman heard arguments Friday afternoon on a requested emergency injunction to reinstate the P.E. teacher suspended after saying at a School Board meeting, for religious reasons, he would not abide by state-mandated protections for transgender students.
A decision is expected by the close of business Monday.
Attorney Tyson Langhofer argued his client, Leesburg Elementary School P.E. Teacher Tanner Cross, had been retaliated against by the school system for expressing his views to elected officials as a private citizen at a School Board meeting.
“This case is about what makes democracy possible,” Langhofer told the court. And, he said, if the school system was allowed to suspend teachers because of the complaints of a few families of students, “it would eviscerate the rights of teachers.”
“It’s a very dangerous road you don’t want to go down,” Langhofer said, adding that other teachers have already said they now feel they cannot express their views for fear of retaliation. He likened the suspension to a “heckler’s veto,” a concept in constitutional law in which the government unconstitutionally suppresses free speech because of the possibility of a violent reaction by hecklers.
“If the defendant’s position is correct, five families could get any teacher fired across the county,” Langhofer said.
Attorney Stacy Haney, representing the school system, argued that Cross was suspended not because of his statements, but because he expressed an intention not to follow school policy and state law, and due to disruption at the school after his speech at the School Board. While the School Board was gathering feedback on proposed policies protecting students from discrimination based on gender identity, she pointed out, there is no option for the local School Board not to adopt those policies—they are required by a state law passed in 2020.
In declarations filed by Leesburg Elementary School Principal Shawn Lacey, Interim Assistant Superintendent Lucia Sebastian and Interim Superintendent Scott Ziegler, the school system argued Cross’s speech had caused a disruption in part because five families had written to the school to request their children have no contact with him, as well as pointing to higher suicide rates and mental health problems among transgender students whose gender identity is not affirmed.
They argued he was suspended not because of his stated religious beliefs, which he had also previously expressed to the School Board by email, but after a day of disruption at the school.
“The School Board has an interest, and it is a compelling one, to protect all students from harassment and discrimination” and to foster an inclusive learning environment, Haney said.
After the lawsuit, Cross and his attorneys went to rally supporting him at Cornerstone Chapel.
“When the school suspended me, they were sending a message to me and other teachers: they will punish teachers who speak out,” Cross said. “But I know this: LCPS should not require me to violate my conscience and lie to my students, and I care too much for my students to lie to them.”
Plowman said he wanted an opportunity to review the case law and filings submitted in the case, much of which came that same afternoon as the emergency injunction was on an accelerated timeline, and took the case under advisement. He said he would endeavor to issue a written opinion by the close of business on Monday.
The School Board is developing policies to meet a new Virginia Department of Education mandate to protect learners of all gender identities.
“It is not my intent to hurt anyone, but there are certain truths that we all must face when ready. We condemn school policies, like 8040 [Rights of Transgender and Gender Expansive Students] and 8035 [Sexual Discrimination, Sexual Assault], because [they] would damage children and defile the holy image of God,” Cross said at the School Board meeting May 25. “I love all my students, but I will never lie to them regardless of the consequences. I’m a teacher, but I serve God first and I will not affirm that a biological boy can be a girl, and vice versa, because it is against my religion, it’s lying to a child, it’s abuse to a child, and it is sinning against our God.”
Two days later, Cross was placed on administrative leave pending an “investigations of allegations that you engaged in conduct that has had a disruptive impact on the operations of Leesburg Elementary School,” according to a letter from Sebastian. The Christian nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit June 1.