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Tipsheet

Federal Court Backs Indiana School Ousting Teacher Over Refusal to Use Preferred Names, Pronouns

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File

An Indiana high school did not break the law by forcing a music teacher to quit his job after he refused – on religious grounds – to use transgender students’ preferred name and pronouns, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Friday. 

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The teacher, John Kluge, taught at Brownsburg High School near Indianapolis beginning in 2014. Reportedly, the school district’s policy to honor students’ names and pronouns corresponding to their gender identity went against his religious convictions. 

On the first day of school in 2017, when the policies were put into place, Kluge told the school principal that he could not abide by it. School district officials allowed him to refer to students by their last names.

According to the New York Post, the school began to receive complaints about Kluge using students’ last names and backpedaled allowing him to refer to students by last names: 

At least two transgender students said the teacher’s refusal to use their first names was hurtful and singled them out in front of classmates.

Kluge’s choice was also met with swift criticism from other students, teachers and counselors — who told district officials they felt uncomfortable in Kluge’s classroom.

Following the complaints, the school backtracked and allegedly urged Kluge to quit.

Kluge resigned in 2018 after he was told he’d be fired if he didn’t address students properly, according to court filings.

Kluge sued the district in 2019, accusing it of violating a federal law prohibiting workplace discrimination based on religion, and sought reinstatement and unspecified monetary damages.

Under federal law, employers are only required to accommodate workers’ religious beliefs if it doesn’t cause undue hardship.

While Kluge argued calling students by their last names wouldn’t be a burden on the school, the Chicago-based 7th Circuit disagreed, upholding an Indiana federal judge’s dismissal of the case.

The appeals court noted the district tried to accommodate Kluge’s religious objection, but realized his use of last names “resulted in students feeling disrespected, targeted, and dehumanized, and in disruptions to the learning environment.”

“Brownsburg has demonstrated as a matter of law that the requested accommodation worked an undue burden on the school’s educational mission by harming transgender students and negatively impacting the learning environment for transgender students, for other students in classes and in the school generally, and for faculty,” the opinion read.

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Kluge is represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal group. In a statement to Reuters, Rory Gray with ADF said that “the 7th Circuit’s ruling shows why the Supreme Court needs to fix the standard for accommodating religious employees.”

In a statement to the Post, Gray said that “Congress passed Title VII to prevent employers from forcing workers to abandon their beliefs to keep their jobs.” 

“In this case, Mr. Kluge went out of his way to accommodate his students and treat them all with respect. The school district even permitted this accommodation before unlawfully punishing Mr. Kluge for his religious beliefs,” Gray added.

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