SAN DIEGO (CN) — Two middle school teachers in Escondido, California, filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against their school district and the California Board of Education, claiming policies protecting transgender and gender-nonconforming students' privacy violates their religious liberties and free speech.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, revolves around Escondido Unified School District’s policies that require school employees to treat student’s trans or gender nonconforming identities as private information that can only be shared with others, including other teachers and parents and guardians, with express permission from the student. The polices also require teachers to use the pronouns matching the students' identity.
The plaintiffs, middle school English teacher Elizabeth Mirabelli and middle school P.E. teacher Lori Ann West, claim the policy, which they say was adopted in private and without a public meeting, also requires teachers to use the pronouns the students identify with in class while using the pronouns matching their legal names when talking to their parents or guardians if the student does not give permission to school employees to identify themselves as trans or gender-nonconforming to their parents.
Mirabelli and West claim these privacy requirements caused them anxiety, panic episodes, insomnia, and stomach pain due to stress because of the difficulties of squaring the policies with their own Catholic and Christian religious beliefs about parental rights, and their "religious and moral duty to provide parents with all information that is needed to properly care for and raise their children."
They add in their lawsuit: "They also believe that parents would expect that all such information would be shared and would feel betrayed if their child’s gender identity was specifically withheld."
Both teachers claim they treat their trans and gender-nonconforming students with respect, but West says her religious beliefs “preclude her from facilitating any student’s transgender or gender diverse social transition by withholding information about it from the student’s parents or guardians.”
The teachers say when the policy was announced in February 2023 without public notice, they requested and received a religious exemption. They were allowed to refer to students by their last names, without their pronouns, and say they complied. But they still had to adhere to the policy regarding what they said to the parents.
“The real outrage here is that schools are requiring educators to hide critical information from parents about their child’s well-being," attorney Paul Jonna of the Thomas More Society, who represents Mirabelli and West, said in a statement, “Rather than partnering with parents to help raise up young people with a well-rounded education and breadth of knowledge, these radical agendas are pitting parents and teachers against one another, to the detriment of their students.”
Mirabelli and West say the policies are unworkable. "Morally and religiously, they know that the complex issues of gender dysphoria and gender identity are not issues best left for children to figure out on their own, with no parental involvement whatsoever,” the teachers say in their lawsuit.
The American Psychiatric Association’s website refers to gender dysphoria as “psychological distress that results from an incongruence between one’s sex assigned at birth and one’s gender identity” which some transgender people might experience.
“Diverse gender expressions, much like diverse gender identities, are not indications of a mental disorder,” the APA website states.
People experiencing gender dysphoria, the website continues, might find support through “adopting pronouns, names, and various aspects of gender expression that match their gender identity,” as well as changing their names on government documents, and seeking affirmative medical care.
“Transgender people suffer from high levels of stigmatization, discrimination and victimization, contributing to negative self-image and increased rates of other mental health disorders. Transgender individuals are at higher risk of victimization and hate crimes than the general public. Suicide rates among transgender people are markedly higher than the general population,” the site continues. “Transgender children and adolescents are often victims of bullying and discrimination at school, which can contribute to serious adverse mental health outcomes. Interventions are often needed to create safe and affirming school environments.”
In an emailed statement, Escondido Unified School District superintendent Dr. Luis Rankins-Ibarra said, “The Escondido Union School District is committed to providing a safe and positive environment that enables our students to learn and actualize their unlimited potential and that empowers our teachers to excel as educators. As part of that commitment to student learning, the district observes all federal and state laws."
The State Board of Education did not return a request for comment by press time.
Mirabelli and West seek a court order finding their school district's policies and the state's mandate unconstitutional and an injunction against enforcement of said policies and mandates.
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