US appeals court upholds Indiana school firing of teacher for not using students’ preferred names, pronouns News
US appeals court upholds Indiana school firing of teacher for not using students’ preferred names, pronouns

The US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit on Friday ruled that an Indiana school district did not violate a teacher’s right to exercise his religious practices after the school terminated the teacher for refusing to use students’ preferred names or pronouns as required by school policy. US Circuit Court Judge Ilana Rovner found that the teacher’s refusal to follow the school’s policy created an undue hardship on the school’s ability to educate and create a safe and supportive environment for all its students.

John Kluge was a teacher who was effectively terminated for refusing to follow the school’s guidelines for addressing students.  Brownsburg Community School Corporation (Brownsburg) requires its teachers to call students by the names registered in the school database. Kluge objected on religious grounds to calling transgender students by their first names, citing his Christian faith that “does not allow [him] to call transgender students by their ‘preferred’ name and pronoun” because doing so “encourages the destructive lifestyle and psychological disorder known as gender dysphoria.”

After being terminated, Kluge initiated a Title VII religious discrimination and retaliation claim which  provides:

It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer – (1) to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin

Title VII also states that an employer must make reasonable accommodations to the religious needs of its employees unless it would impose undue hardship on that employer’s business.

Brownsburg accommodated Kluge’s request to call students by their last name only, but withdrew the accommodation after stating it was harming transgender students and adversely affecting the school’s learning environment. Evidence was provided to the Court that Kluge’s last-name-only accommodation had caused students to feel “disrespected, targeted, and dehumanized” and disrupted the learning environment, creating an undue hardship on Brownsburg’s goal of educating all its students. In her decision, Rovner emphasized that a religious employee’s practice cannot always be accommodated, particularly where that accommodation would impose undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.