A Virginia judge said Tuesday that a Loudoun County teacher suspended for refusing to address transgender students with the pronouns they use should return to work immediately.

In a seven-page ruling, 20th Circuit Judge James E. Plowman Jr. sharply rebuked the Loudoun County Public Schools system for its treatment of the teacher, Tanner Cross. Plowman called Loudoun’s attempts to discipline Cross “an unconstitutional action . . . which has silenced others from speaking publicly on the issue.”

Per Virginia law, the school system can petition for a review of the judge’s ruling within 15 days.

School officials had barred Cross from performing his job as a physical education instructor at Leesburg Elementary School — and from setting foot on campus — after he declared at a late-May school board meeting that he would never “affirm that a biological boy can be a girl, and vice versa.” Cross said his Christian faith and determination to always tell the truth meant he could not use a transgender child’s pronoun if it did not agree with their biological sex as determined at birth.

The Equality Act is a positive step forward for the LGBTQ community. But it came with swift backlash from conservative lawmakers. (Monica Rodman, Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

Cross was speaking against a draft proposal being circulated by Loudoun officials that would require teachers to call transgender students by the pronouns and names they use. In the speech, he also referenced a recent “60 Minutes” segment on transgender health care that included an interview with a child who began transitioning but came to regret the process.

Officials with the Northern Virginia school system placed Cross on paid administrative leave starting May 27, and forbade him from setting foot on Loudoun school grounds and from speaking at school board meetings.

On June 1, Cross sued the school system’s top administrators, alleging their actions violated his rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion. He requested a preliminary injunction forcing his reinstatement and ending his banishment from school grounds and school board meetings.

In his Tuesday ruling, Plowman ordered that Loudoun County Public Schools “immediately reinstate” Cross and rescind its ban barring him from school grounds while Cross’s lawsuit goes forward.

Plowman also critiqued several aspects of the school system’s legal case, disputing in particular the idea that Cross’s speech had caused “disruption to school operations,” and wrote that the school’s decision to put him on administrative leave seemed “an unnecessary and vindictive act given the end of the school year was so close.”

Loudoun County schools spokesman Wayde Byard said Tuesday that the district “will have no comment” on the ruling.

In a statement, Michael Farris, president and chief executive of the Alliance Defending Freedom — the conservative legal group representing Cross — hailed the decision as a victory for free speech. The alliance has a history of taking on lawsuits that call into question the rights of transgender people.

“Educators are just like everybody else — they have ideas and opinions that they should be free to express,” Farris said. “Advocating for solutions they believe in should not cost them their jobs.”

But for some parents and students in the county, the judge’s decision came as a devastating setback.

Cris Candice Tuck, a transgender parent in Loudoun, said he and his children — who are taking Cross’s physical education class this year — are heartbroken. He fears the ruling will encourage “hateful rhetoric” throughout the county.

Tuck said his 6-year-old son has long looked up to Cross as a role model. The boy has a difficult time in school, and PE is his outlet. “My kids know I’m transgender, and many of our friends are transgender,” Tuck said. “They know what the effects of things like misgendering and dead-naming can be.”

“They’re really upset today,” he added. “They don’t want to be in PE on Thursday.”

Luckily, Tuck said, Thursday’s PE class is the last one of the school year. Still, he plans to write the Leesburg Elementary principal requesting a “special exemption” to allow his children to be absent from Cross’s class. Even if the principal refuses, Tuck said, he will pull his children from the class. Both his 6-year-old and his 8-year-old are attending school virtually, so he will simply log them off the computer if need be.

The suit, filed in Loudoun County Circuit Court, names as defendants the Loudoun School Board, interim schools superintendent Scott A. Ziegler and Lucia Villa Sebastian, interim assistant superintendent for human resources and talent development.

Cross “does not believe that every student or teacher in [Loudoun County] should have to accept his view,” the suit states. “But he also believes that teachers should not be compelled to say things that they do not believe to be true.”

The teacher has drawn support from some Loudoun County parents, a small group of whom held a rally for Cross over the weekend. And he has earned attention from Republican Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin, who tweeted urging the school board to reverse their decision and allow Cross to head back to work.

On Tuesday, he tweeted praise for the judge’s ruling, calling it “a win for religious freedom.”

Hours after the decision came down, supporters and opponents of Cross collided at a tense Loudoun County School Board meeting, held fully in-person — except for one board member who remained virtual — for the first time in months.

Just before the meeting started, some parents gathered for a rally outside the Loudoun administrative building in Ashburn to denounce Cross’s actions. They hoisted signs reading “Protect Trans Kids” and “We Support Equity” — but they were met by other parents, some wearing blue T-shirts that declared “Let Tanner Teach.”

Inside the building, more than 100 people spoke during a public comment section. Many focused on the Cross case — mostly sharing their support for Cross — although some also lambasted the school board for an ongoing controversy over the system’s racial equity work.

A military mother, Michelle Tanis, said she gave two decades of her life to protect American democracy, which she said the school board was undermining by infringing on Cross’s free speech.

“We will not let you have our souls,” parent Monica Gill told the school board, referencing her Christian faith, “or the souls of our children.”

At one point the audience grew so loud that board chair Brenda Sheridan announced a five-minute recess and left the room, demanding that the attendees “find their decorum.”