A teacher, Enoch Burke, in Ireland has been jailed for contempt of court, after defying a restraining order stemming from a dispute with the school over a directive to address a student by the pronoun “they.”
The case has raised questions about how to wage the culture war, particularly when troubled youth are caught in the crossfire.
Last spring, Burke, a teacher at Wilson’s School, a Church of Ireland diocesan school in Co. Westmeath, refused to comply with a directive from the school’s principal that “expected” teachers to refer to a biologically female pupil by “they” and to call the student by her preferred masculine name. This protocol had been requested by the student’s parents on the grounds that the student did not identify with her biological sex and was adopting a different gender identity.
The Irish Times reports that “Burke had been informed by the family of a pupil that a student wanted to transition and be addressed by a different name.” On May 9th, the school principal sent a directive to the staff to use the pupil’s preferred name and the pronoun “they.” Burke responded in a communication that it was wrong to have this forced on teachers and pupils and that he would be taking the matter further.
According to the Irish news outlet Gript, Burke’s resistance to the directive later led to an alleged public altercation between him and the school’s principal. On August 22, Burke was placed on administrative leave with full pay, pending disciplinary action.
Burke, though, continued to show up daily at the school, reportedly sitting in an empty classroom insisting that he was there to work.
The school then obtained a restraining order against him on August 30th, which he also defied by continuing to present himself at the school, leading to his arrest on September 5th, a subsequent court appearance, and imprisonment.
In his defence, Burke, who is representing himself without legal assistance, described himself as a “prisoner of conscience.” He said his compliance with the school’s directive would be “violating his conscience.” He argued that he was in court and not in his classroom, where he wanted to be, “because I said I would not call a boy a girl.” On the same grounds, he could not reconcile with the court and purge himself of his contempt.
The judge countered that Burke’s chance to argue his case to the school was at the disciplinary hearing, scheduled for September 14th, not during his administrative leave.
Gript writer John McGuirk points out that the situation involves a number of issues, many of which contradict each other.
“It seems to me to be a fundamental point of basic decency that in general, if you can avoid conflict with children that are not your own, that is a good thing to do. At the heart of this story is a child who has decided to change their pronouns,” McGuirk notes.
“Even if you hold to the view, as some do, that children like this are troubled, it seems to me that confronting them publicly is not the way to help them,” he concludes.
At the same time, McGuirk is aware that the prudence of where, when, and how to wage the culture war goes both ways, and that education in Ireland is increasingly ideologically inclined.
“Even if you think Burke is a jackass, is he just a jackass, or has he committed a fireable offence?” McGuirk wonders.
In other words, Burke shouldn’t take all the blame for turning schools into battlegrounds.
Still, McGuirk notes, Burke is in jail not because of any pronouns he did or didn’t use, but because he violated a court order not to be at the school. If Burke had expected a trial over a restraining order to provide a platform to argue his case for freedom of conscience, he had sorely miscalculated, while violating the rule of law.
Then again, McGuirk laments the sorry state of the Irish courts. Had Burke’s offense been something truly heinous, such as sexual violence or possession of child pornography, he likely would have found his sentence suspended.
Now, as things stand, Burke himself has become the central figure in the matter. But as the media and public opinion hash out the young teacher’s victim or villain status, there is still a teenager suffering—how else to describe it—from apparent gender dysphoria, who arguably has had the most at stake from the beginning, from mental health to bodily integrity.
Burke himself, at least according to media reports, has only argued for the conscience rights of others while the student’s parents and other responsible adults have, seemingly, staked the teen’s happiness on the impossibilities offered by gender ideology.
Who, then, amid the convulsions of culture wars and legal rights, is standing up for those who suffer the worst consequences of both genuine gender dysphoria and the impossibility of negating biological sex?
In this case, apparently, no one.
“About the only people free of blame here, ironically, are the courts, who were left with no real option but to throw him in jail for contempt, or see their authority openly flouted with no consequence. That would have been a bad precedent for all of us,” McGuirk concludes.
Bridget Ryder is Spain-based writer. She has written on politics, environment, and culture for American and international publications. She holds degrees in Spanish and Catholic Studies.