John Kluge, a former music and orchestra teacher at Brownsburg Community School Corporation (“BCSC”) filed a federal lawsuit alleging that he was discriminated against after he refused to address transgender students by their chosen first names.
BCSC hired Mr. Kluge hired in 2014 and for several years thereafter, he consistently received positive performance reviews. His students, he said, also received awards for their musical performances. But trouble began in 2017 when BCSC decided to allow transgender students or those with gender dysphoria to change their names and genders in an online school database.
At the time, Mr. Kluge, who describes himself as a “professing evangelical Christian,” told administrators that calling transgender students by the names listed in the school database would conflict with his religious beliefs against affirming gender dysphoria. In response, BCSC told Mr. Kluge to either abide by the policy, resign, or be terminated. However, BCSC subsequently granted Mr. Kluge a reasonable accommodation that allowed Mr. Kluge to refer to all students by their last names, like a baseball or football coach. However, the accommodation was short lived.
Later in 2017, BCSC told Mr. Kluge that the last-name only accommodation had created tension among the student body and offended certain students. Thus, BCSC suggested that Mr. Kluge should resign if he could not abide by the school’s policy.
After Mr. Kluge was “forced” to resign, he filed a federal lawsuit raising 13 claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the First and 14th Amendments, the Indiana Constitution and other state law provisions. In response, BCSC filed a motion to dismiss, which resulted in the court dismissing 11 of the 13 claims and allowing Mr. Kluge’s claims for retaliation and BCSC’s failure to accommodate Mr. Kluge’s religious objections to continue. Thereafter, Mr. Kluge filed a motion for partial summary judgment, seeking judgment in favor on his failure to accommodate claim and BCSC filed a cross-motion for summary judgment seeking judgment in its favor on both claims.
Now, on the second round of motions, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana sided with BCSC and the school district and granted summary judgment on Mr. Kluge’s two remaining claims. In its order, the court concluded that Mr. Kluge had established a prima facie case of discrimination, but that the evidence also demonstrated that the last-names-only accommodation resulted in undue hardship to BCSC – primarily, because Mr. Kluge’s use of the last names hindered BCSC’s ability to provide an education to all students and conflicted with its policy of creating a safe and supportive environment for all students. The Court also noted, “continuing to allow Mr. Kluge an accommodation that resulted in complaints that transgender students felt targeted and dehumanized could potentially subject BCSC to a Title IX discrimination lawsuit brought by a transgender student.” According to the Court, the increased risk of liability also constituted an undue hardship that Title VII did not require BCSC to bear.
Additionally, with respect to Mr. Kluge’s retaliation claim, the Court determined that the last-names-only arrangement was withdrawn because of complaints causing undue hardship, not because of any hostility to Mr. Kluge’s religious beliefs or because of his request for accommodations.
In reaching its decision, the Court questioned, “So, what’s in a name?”, and, while noting that although the court “is ill-equipped to answer that question definitively,” the court determined that a “name carries with it enough importance to overcome a public school corporation’s duty to accommodate a teacher’s sincerely held religious beliefs against a policy that requires staff to use transgender students’ preferred names when supported by a parent and health care provider.”
I understand that most of the readers of this article will not work for a school district, so you may be wondering, how does this apply to you? Well, this decision is another argument for courts across the country that affirms the rights of transgender individuals. Consequently, if you have not already, it’s time to begin to prepare to address a similar situation in your workplace, whether they arise out of a transgendered customer or team member, or someone who expresses a sincerely held religious belief related to transgender or LGBTQ individuals. Additionally, it’s time to look at your HR policies and procedures, (and maybe even your dress code?), to make sure they are all keeping up with the times.