The Seventh Circuit ruled in favor of the school district and found that a high school teacher did not have the right to ignore the school’s transgender name and pronoun policy because of his religious beliefs. Kluge v. Brownsburg Community School Corp., No. 21-2475 (April 7, 2023) S.D. Ind., Indianapolis Div.
In 2017, Brownsburg Community School Corporation (“School”) implemented a new policy to use transgender students’ chosen names and pronouns. John Kluge, a music teacher at the School, refused to abide by the new policy, claiming it violated his religious beliefs. Teachers were instructed to call all students by the names registered in the School’s official student database. Kluge requested an accommodation to refer to all students by their last name because the plaintiff became aware that two transgender students would be in his class, and his religion treated gender dysphoria as a sin, and referring to the students by their preferred names would be a sin because it promoted gender dysphoria. The School initially granted Kluge’s accommodation request but then, it began to receive negative feedback from both transgender and cisgender students because they figured out his reasons for calling them by their last name. The School informed Kluge they would no longer allow his accommodation, and Kluge resigned at the end of the school year in 2018.
Kluge sued the School later in the year for religious discrimination and retaliation. Kluge alleged that Brownsburg failed to accommodate his religious beliefs. They retaliated against him by terminating him for refusing to follow the School’s guidelines on addressing students. Brownsburg argued that Kluge had caused it “undue hardship” by his refusal to use students’ chosen names and pronouns, which made some students feel “targeted and uncomfortable” and hindered their ability to learn. Additionally, the School argued that Kluge’s position made them susceptible to gender discrimination lawsuits.
Under Title VII, employers are required to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs and practices unless that accommodation would cause an “undue hardship” to the employer. The Seventh Circuit agreed with the District Court that Kluge’s accommodation imposed an undue hardship because his refusal to use students’ chosen names and preferred pronouns made students feel “targeted and uncomfortable” and hindered their ability to learn. The Court found that Brownsburg presented substantial evidence of this emotional harm and disruption, and Kluge presented no evidence to the contrary. In a dissenting opinion, Circuit Judge Michael Brenna said it was unclear whether the School could have mitigated any disruptions resulting from Kluge’s conduct and that a jury should decide whether his rights were violated.
Kluge is an illustration of a difficult area of the law that is still in the process of being developed. We anticipate that there will continue to be cases in this arena over the next couple of years that will end up providing guidance. It should also be noted that guidance from the Federal government is being handed down too. Please make sure to involve your attorney early on in addressing these issues.
For more information about this article, contact Tressler attorney Marlene Fuentes at firstname.lastname@example.org.