A divided federal appeals court has upheld an Indiana school district’s firing of a music teacher who refused to address transgender students by their first names and pronouns for religious reasons.
A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago, ruled 2-1 on April 7 that the Brownsburg, Ind., school district’s decision to end a nearly school-year-length attempt to accommodate the teacher by allowing him to use only last names to refer to all his students did not violate the teacher’s rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“The last-names-only practice conflicted with the school’s philosophy of affirming and respecting all students because the undisputed evidence showed that the accommodation resulted in students feeling disrespected, targeted, and dehumanized, and in disruptions to the learning environment,” the 7th Circuit majority said in its April 7 ruling. “Title VII does not require the school to adopt an accommodation that, although facially neutral, does not work that way in practice.”
The decision has larger implications for transgender students’ rights across the country, as a handful of public school teachers have raised religious objections to addressing students by new names and pronouns after a gender transition.
Additionally, the 7th Circuit based its decision on a U.S. Supreme Court precedent from the 1970s that interprets Title VII’s prohibition on religious discrimination. The statute requires employers to accommodate a worker’s religious observance unless it would impose an “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” In its 1977 decision in Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, the court defined undue hardship as anything that required the employer to bear “more than a de minimis cost” to its operations.
The Supreme Court will soon hear arguments in a case that urges the justices to overrule Hardison and adopt a definition of “undue hardship” that is more friendly to employee religious accommodations. That ruling could eventually guide how lower courts rule on religious accommodations for public education employees, including how teachers address transgender students.
Teacher and school try a last-names-only accommodation
The 134-page 7th Circuit opinion in the case of teacher John M. Kluge provides a detailed narrative of the controversy before and during the 2017-18 school year. Officials of the 10,000-student Brownsburg district, about 20 miles from Indianapolis, learned they would have several transgender students enrolling as freshmen at Brownsburg High School that fall.
The district committed to helping transgender students address challenges in school. Kluge and three other teachers at Brownsburg High approached administrators with their view that their Christian beliefs would not permit them to address transgender students with names or pronouns that were inconsistent with those the students were assigned at birth.
School officials also changed the names, gender markers, and pronouns of the transgender students in PowerSchool, the district’s student database. Those students all had their parents’ and healthcare providers’ OK to make those changes. The district thus decided all school personnel would address students consistent with their information in the PowerSchool database.
This policy was sufficient for three of the teachers who initially raised religious objections, but not for Kluge, who was the sole music and orchestra teacher at the high school.
After some negotiations before the start of the school year, the district agreed to an accommodation suggested by Kluge—that he be allowed to address all students by their last names, “like a gym teacher,” as Kluge put it according to court papers.
Kluge had two transgender students in his classes. Within a month, there were complaints to school administrators that those students felt the last-name policy was in place because of them, and they felt isolated and targeted because of it. There were also reports from students and other teachers that Kluge sometimes slipped and used first names for cisgender students but not their transgender classmates. And one transgender male student said in court papers that Kluge referred to him as “Miss ...” several times.
By December 2017, administrators met with Kluge to tell him that the last-names policy was not working and that transgender students were being harmed, the first of several meetings as the issue slowly bubbled into the second semester. At a February 2018 meeting with administrators, according to court papers, Kluge said he felt that using the names in PowerSchool forced him to “encourage” students down “a path that’s going to lead to destruction, to hell, I can’t as a Christian be encouraging students to hell.”
Faced with an ultimatum to begin addressing transgender students based on the database information or be fired, Kluge offered his resignation in April 2018. He later tried to rescind it, but the district rejected that attempt and the school board voted to accept the resignation.
Kluge sued under Title VII for religious discrimination and failure to accommodate his religious beliefs. (There were other federal and state law claims, but they did not reach the 7th Circuit.)
A federal district court sided with the school district in 2021.
Concerns about effects on the classroom environment
In its decision in Kluge v. Brownsburg Community School Corp., the 7th Circuit panel relied heavily on the Supreme Court’s Hardison framework for analyzing religious discrimination claims in employment.
The appeals court majority accepted that Kluge presented a case that, on its face, suggested the district had failed to accommodate a religious practice. The burden then shifted to the district to show that it could not accommodate the teacher without undue hardship, one that was “more than de minimis” under Hardison.
“The school produced uncontradicted evidence that Kluge’s last-names-only practice stigmatized the transgender students and caused them demonstrable emotional harm,” Judge Ilana D. Rovner wrote for the majority. “Kluge was told that students reported feeling disrespected, targeted, isolated, and dehumanized.”
The teacher’s practice “also adversely affected the classroom environment which both transgender and non-transgender students considered tense, awkward and uncomfortable,” Rovner said. “Allowing Kluge to continue in the practice thus placed an undue hardship on Brownsburg’s mission to educate all of its students, and its desire to treat all students with respect and affirmation for their identity in the service of that mission.”
Writing in a lengthy dissent, Judge Michael B. Brennan said he would revive Kluge’s lawsuit so he would be given the chance to prove that a few students “taking offense” at his religious view did not constitute more than a minimal burden on the school district.
“Kluge did not proselytize. He did not reveal to his students why he used only last names, and he never shared his religious beliefs with them,” Brennan said. “The evidence shows that any alleged offense came from students’ assumptions about Kluge’s motives for the last-names-only practice—not from the practice itself.”
Kluge is represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal organization based in Scottsdale, Ariz. “We’re still evaluating our appeal options,” said AnnMarie Pariseau, a spokeswoman for the organization.
In Groff v. DeJoy, the Supreme Court case that will address Hardison, ADF wrote a friend-of-the-court brief telling the court that the 1977 precedent extends well beyond issues of workers having to work on the Sabbath to situations such as that of Kluge and other teachers requiring religious accommodations at public schools. The brief urges the court to overrule Hardison.
Arguments in the Groff case are April 18.