Lawsuit: Michigan school's policies on gender identity impose on religious beliefs
Williamston Community Schools and a majority of its school board are being sued by parents who say new policies related to gender identity infringe on their sincerely held religious beliefs.
The policies in question, adopted last fall by Williamston's Board of Education, added sexual orientation and gender identity as protected groups in the district's bullying and equal opportunities policies and allow students to be referred to by their chosen gender.
Those policies and the enforcing of them, "seek to silence and punish Plaintiffs’ sincerely held religious beliefs and viewpoint," according to the lawsuit.
David Kallman, senior legal counsel with the Great Lakes Justice Center and the attorney representing the parents, said Williamston's policies go further than state law allows and affirm views of sexual orientation and gender identity that run counter to his clients' religious beliefs.
"We're not claiming there's been any specific act that’s happened," Kallman said of discrimination against parents or students. "We're simply saying these policies allow for these things to happen."
Edward and Erin Reynolds, two of the plaintiffs in the case, pulled their two children from the district as a result of the policies, according to the lawsuit. They deferred comment to Kallman. Two other parents, as well as a minor student referred to as A.B. in the lawsuit, are also plaintiffs.
Each of the six board members who voted in favor of the district's gender identity policy is named as a defendant. That includes Joel Gerring, a board member who resigned the day after the vote.
Board Vice President Jeffrey West, the lone dissenting vote on the gender identity policy, isn't named in the lawsuit.
"We have reviewed our School Board policies brought into issue by the allegations raised in plaintiffs’ complaint," Williamston Superintendent Adam Spina said in a statement released to the Lansing State Journal. "The School District does not believe that any constitutional or statutory right of any students or their families has been infringed upon in any manner. Our attorneys advise that they will bring a motion to dismiss the lawsuit in accordance with the Scheduling Order set by the Court."
Greg Talberg, president of Williamston's school board, declined to comment on the lawsuit.
A separate policy approved in November that allows any student regardless of gender identity to request an alternative bathroom or locker room space if they feel uncomfortable isn't included in the lawsuit.
Meanwhile, an effort to recall several Williamston school board members, including Talberg, is on hold due to an appeal. That effort is being led by Jonathan Brandt, a Williamston resident who has been critical of the policies and has submitted recall language against board members four times since last fall.
Talberg is appealing the Ingham County Election Commission's 2-1 decision to allow recall language against him and three other trustees to move forward. At issue, according to Talberg, is wording that he says implies that school board members acted outside of their legal authority in approving policies related to gender identity.
"I think it gives the impression to a voter that our policies don’t comply with the law, and they do," Talberg said.
The full recall petition reads: "(School board member)" voted yes to add gender identity policy 8011 on November 6, 2016. Board cites Title IX and Michigan Civil Rights (Elliot-Larsen) Act as legal references when neither gender identity nor gender expression are mentioned in those documents."
Signatures toward a recall can't be counted until after the appeal is resolved, said Barb Byrum, Ingham County Clerk. She was the lone member of the election commission to vote against the recall language.
Talberg's appeal was filed in Ingham County Circuit Court earlier this month. Both cases are still pending.
Contact RJ Wolcott at (517) 377-1026 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @wolcottr.