‘First Amendment is on our side’: Va. teacher punished for criticizing trans pronoun policy speaks out

A sign outside a classroom taken in 2016.
A sign outside a classroom taken in 2016. | REUTERS/Tami Chappell

A school teacher in Virginia fighting punishment from a school district for criticizing a proposed policy that would force teachers to use trans-identified students' preferred pronouns has stated that the “First Amendment is on our side.”

Bryon Tanner Cross, a physical education teacher at Leesburg Elementary School, was suspended by Loudon County Public Schools for speaking against the proposed policy during a school board meeting in May.

Cross, who a judge ordered to be reinstated days before the end of the school year through a temporary injunction, is in an ongoing legal battle with the school district and will return to court for a final ruling in September. 

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In a recent interview with Fox News, Cross explained that it “felt great” to be reinstated and that he got a “warm welcome” from students, parents and faculty at his school.

When asked if he is worried about losing his job or being suspended again, Cross responded that he is “not worried” and that “the First Amendment is on our side.”

“We care about our students, and we just hope that everybody’s viewpoint is looked into so that we all can be an inclusive environment and just educate children the correct way,” he said.

“I believe that there are other teachers. I know for a fact that there are teachers that feel the same way that I do, and this is convicting them, too.”

On May 25, the Loudon County School Board held a meeting to debate a proposed policy known as Policy 8040 that would require staff and students to use the chosen pronouns of trans-identified students or those that identify as “gender-expansive.”

“LCPS staff shall allow gender-expansive or transgender students to use their chosen name and gender pronouns that reflect their gender identity without any substantiating evidence, regardless of the name and gender recorded in the student’s permanent educational record,” reads a draft of the policy from May.

“Inadvertent slips in the use of names or pronouns may occur; however, staff or students who intentionally and persistently refuse to respect a student’s gender identity by using the wrong name and gender pronoun are in violation of this policy.”

During the meeting, Cross argued that as a Christian, he is unable to “affirm that a biological boy can be a girl and vice versa.”

“My name is Tanner Cross, and I am speaking out of love for those who suffer with gender dysphoria,” stated Cross at the time. “I love all of my students, but I will never lie to them regardless of the consequences.”

Two days after the board meeting, Cross was put on administrative leave with pay and prohibited from going onto any school properties unless given expressed permission to do so.

In response, Cross filed a complaint against LCPS and was represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal nonprofit that handles religious liberty cases.

In June, Judge James E. Plowman of the 20th Judicial Circuit of Virginia gave Cross a temporary injunction against the school board's decision, which will expire in December.

Plowman wrote that putting Cross on leave was “extreme” and “an unconstitutional action” since the teacher’s words, even if controversial, were nevertheless “permissible.”

“The Court agrees with Plaintiff’s analysis and concludes that Defendants’ actions to suspend the Plaintiff, as well as the additional restrictions placed upon him, adversely affected his constitutionally protected speech,” wrote the judge last month.

“Here, it was clear that the Plaintiff was speaking as a citizen, not in his official capacity. His speech was not conducted at his usual place of employment, occurred during non-working hours and at a forum where public comment was invited.”

In response to the injunction, LCPS appealed the judge’s decision, claiming that Cross’ comments were harmful.

“LCPS respectfully disagrees with the Circuit Court’s decision to issue the injunction, and it is appealing this ruling to the Supreme Court of Virginia,” stated LCPS.

“Many students and parents at Leesburg Elementary have expressed fear, hurt and disappointment about coming to school. Addressing those concerns is paramount to the school division’s goal to provide a safe, welcoming and affirming learning environment for all students.”

The school district went on to state that while it respects “the rights of public school employees to free speech and free exercise of religion, those rights do not outweigh the rights of students to be educated in a supportive and nurturing environment.”  

During the Fox News segment, ADF attorney Tyson Langhofer said that "no public school teacher should ever be punished simply for sharing their beliefs in a public forum, where the school board invited comment."

"They retaliated against him simply for sharing his position on these proposed policies," the lawyer said. said. "And that's a violation of both his free speech rights under the Virginia Constitution and his free exercise of religion. I am really puzzled at their decision to appeal this to the Virginia Supreme Court because the district court's decision was very well reasoned, based on longstanding constitutional law that the government cannot punish people simply for expressing their beliefs in a public forum ..." 

Langhofer said that "there is no timetable" for the Virginia Supreme Court. 

"We will likely hear something from them in the next 30 days," he explained. "We actually have a trial scheduled before the district court for a final decision in early September."

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