Teachers sue Florida over pronoun restrictions in schools

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TALLAHASSEE, Florida — Three Florida teachers sued state and local officials in federal court Wednesday seeking to overturn a new law forbidding employees from using pronouns in schools that differ from their sex at birth.

The group, represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, contend that the law passed by state Republicans and lauded by Gov. Ron DeSantis earlier this year amounts to sex discrimination and violates their constitutional rights, putting them at risk of losing their educator credentials — or jobs — for being “who they are.”

Filed in Tallahassee, the lawsuit is the latest legal pushback against several key polices created by state GOP leaders recently to strengthen parental rights and remove “wokeness” from classrooms, moves criticized by opponents as unfairly targeting the LGBTQ+ community.

“Plaintiffs are current and former Florida public-school teachers who simply wanted to teach math, science, and their other school subjects of expertise,” attorneys for the educators wrote in the lawsuit. “But earlier this year, Florida enacted a new law that pushed one plaintiff out of their teaching career and threatens to do the same for the other plaintiffs—and for the other transgender and nonbinary teachers like them across Florida.”

The lawsuit disputes a wide-ranging state law that regulates how students and teachers can use pronouns.

Enacted by the Florida Department of Education in August, the legislation stipulated that school employees can’t ask students for their preferred pronouns and restricts school staff from sharing their pronouns with students if they “do not correspond” with their sex. Under this policy, it is considered “false to ascribe” a person with a pronoun that “does not correspond to such person’s sex.”

This new law, according to the complaint, has “stigmatized” transgender and non-binary teachers, “threatened their psychological wellbeing” and “upended the respect that is owed to them as educators.”

As an example, one plaintiff, Katie Wood, who teaches math at a Hillsborough County high school, is a transgender woman who transitioned in 2020 and has since used she/her pronouns, including when she started at the school district two years ago. But under the new rules, Wood this year was told by school administrators that she could no longer use female pronouns and would have to use titles like Mr., teacher, or coach. Further, the lawsuit alleges that Wood is forbidden from correcting students who refer to her as Mr. or by he/him pronouns.

As such, the group argues that Florida’s school pronoun law violates constitutional rights tied to sex discrimination, equal protection clauses and free speech, among others. They insist the policy is part of a larger attack on the LGBTQ+ community by Florida conservatives, who passed other measures such as banning gender-affirming care for minors, restricting drag shows and regulating bathroom use for transgender people.

The law “discriminates against transgender and nonbinary public-school employees and contractors on the basis of sex, by prohibiting them from using the titles and pronouns that express who they are,” the lawsuit alleges. It “requires (the teachers) to shed their titles and pronouns at the schoolhouse gate because they are not the titles and pronouns that Florida prefers for the sex it deems them to be.”

The lawsuit is aimed at the Florida Department of Education and Board of Education, which are enforcing the pronoun law; school boards in Hillsborough and Lee counties where two of the teachers reside; Florida Virtual School where the third educator taught before being fired; and the Education Practices Commission charged with hearing complaints tied to teacher certifications.

Officials with the Department of Education and the local school districts named in the lawsuit did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The case has been assigned to Judge Mark Walker, an appointee of former President Obama who has heard several significant challenges to policies pushed by the DeSantis administration.