Pronoun litigation goes to the Circuit Court: Part One.

We now have a Circuit Court decision on how a school’s pronoun policy applies to a teacher who has religious objections to it.  Here are the facts that led to the 7th Circuit’s recent decision.

THE NAME POLICY.  The Brownsburg Community School Corporation in Indiana adopted a policy that required teachers to refer to students by the name that was logged into a school database.  Transgender students could change their first names in the database with parent permission and a letter from a health care professional.  They could also change their gender status and specify what pronouns should be used with them.

THE LAST NAME ONLY ACCOMMODATION. Mr. Kluge, a music/orchestra teacher, refused to comply with this policy, citing his religious beliefs. Mr. Kluge believes that transgenderism is a sin, and that it would be wrong for him to encourage or support it.  School administrators agreed to accommodate Mr. Kluge’s concerns by allowing him to refer to students by last name only.  There would be no “Mr., Ms., or Miss” and no first names.  Adam Smith would be Smith.  Angela Jones would be Jones.

THE CONCERNS.  A teacher expressed concerns about this accommodation. This teacher was also the faculty advisor to the Equality Alliance, a student club that met weekly to discuss issues that affected students who were gay or transgender. He reported that students and some parents were “not exactly happy about” this “last name only” practice. In the meetings of the Equality Alliance some of the students also expressed their displeasure. They reported that they felt insulted and disrespected, and they were sure that Mr. Kluge’s “last name only” practice was due to the presence of transgender students in his classes. So they felt “isolated and targeted” which is what the school’s “name policy” was designed to prevent.

FORCED RESIGNATION.  About halfway through the school year the administration decided that the “last name only” accommodation was not working.  Mr. Kluge was told that he needed to either comply with the name policy, resign, or be terminated. He resigned, and then sued, claiming that the district discriminated against him based on his religion, by failing to accommodate his sincerely held beliefs.

THE LEGAL STANDARD.  Employers are required to “reasonably accommodate” the religious beliefs of employees. An accommodation is reasonable unless it would cause an “undue hardship” to the employer. So this case came down to a simple question: did the “last name only” accommodation create an “undue hardship” for the school district?

In 2021, the federal district court in Indiana held that it did. Key Quotes:

Mr. Kluge’s religious opposition to transgenderism is directly at odds with BCSC’s policy of respect for transgender students, which is grounded in supporting and affirming those students.

[The last name only accommodation] conflicted with its philosophy of creating a safe and supportive environment for all students. 

BCSC is a public school corporation and as such has an obligation to meet the needs of all of its students, not just a majority of students or the students that were unaware of or unbothered by Mr.Kluge’s practice of using last names only.  (Emphasis in the original).

Now the case has been decided by the 7th Circuit, the highest level court to address the tension that exists between a school policy like this one and the sincerely held religious beliefs of a teacher. We’ll tell you about that Circuit Court decision tomorrow.  The lower court decision is Kluge v. Brownsburg Community School Corporation, decided by the federal court for the Southern District of Indiana on July 12, 2021.  It’s cited at 548 F.Supp 3d 814 (S.D. Ind. 2021).


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Tomorrow: how the Circuit Court looked at it….