Indiana teacher forced to resign for refusing to use kids chosen trans pronouns appeals case

REUTERS/Tami Chappell

A high school music teacher forced to resign by an Indiana school district for refusing to use the chosen names and pronouns of trans-identified students is asking an appeals court to rule in his favor.  

The Alliance Defending Freedom has filed a request for the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit to hear the case of fired music teacher John Kluge, who is suing the Brownsburg Community School Corporation.

A petition for rehearing en banc was filed last week, with ADF arguing that rulings against Kluge from a lower court and a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit reject his religious freedom.

“The panel majority’s divergence from so many other precedents also causes it to get several additional questions of exceptional importance wrong,” read the petition, in part.

“The decision (1) misconstrues what evidence is relevant in Title VII discrimination and retaliation cases, (2) gives public schools free reign to deny any religious accommodation whatsoever, (3) treats as disrespectful and unprofessional a neutral religious accommodation designed to avoid compulsion of objectionable language, and (4) misconstrues causation in the retaliation context.”

The petition requested that the appeals not only grant the petition, but also wait to rehear the case until the United States Supreme Court decides Groff v. DeJoy, which is centered on whether the U.S. Postal Service can fire a Christian employee who refused to work on Sundays for religious reasons.

ADF Senior Counsel and Vice President of Appellate Advocacy John Bursch said in a statement last Friday that government employees should be able “to live and work according to their religious beliefs.”

“Yet the Brownsburg school district ignored the law, deciding Mr. Kluge’s religious views couldn’t be tolerated, revoked his religious accommodation based on the grumblings of a few, and forced him to resign on pain of termination,” stated Bursch.

“The school district’s decision violates Title VII which makes it unlawful to discriminate against someone on the basis of religion. We are asking the full 7th Circuit to take this case, reverse this unlawful decision, and rule on the side of religious freedom.”

During the 2017-2018 academic year, Kluge’s school district told faculty and staff that they needed to use the preferred names and pronouns of trans-identified students.

When Kluge objected to the new policy on the basis of his religious beliefs, school officials told him that he had to either comply, be fired or tender his resignation by May 1, 2018.

In 2018, after his resignation was accepted, Kluge sued officials, accusing them of violating Title VII of the federal civil rights law by not accommodating his sincerely-held religious beliefs.

A lower court dismissed some of the teacher's claims against school officials and ruled against Kluge, while a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit ruled 2-1 against the music teacher earlier this month.

Circuit Judge Ilana Rovner authored the majority opinion, concluding that “the undisputed evidence demonstrates that Kluge’s accommodation harmed students and disrupted the learning environment.”

“[Kluge] has produced no evidence tending to show that the transgender students were not emotionally harmed by his practice or that the learning environment was not disrupted,” wrote Rovner.

“A practice that indisputably caused emotional harm to students and disruptions to the learning environment is an undue hardship to a school as a matter of law. As Kluge himself conceded, schools have a legitimate interest in the mental health of their students.”

Circuit Judge Michael Brennan authored an opinion that concurred in part and dissented in part, arguing that Kluge had a valid complaint regarding the denial of a religious accommodation and the complaints cited by the majority were “just one side of the story.”

“Three of Kluge’s students and a fellow teacher, all of whom observed his classes in the 2017–2018 school year, attested that the last-names-only practice did not adversely affect the classroom environment,” Brennan wrote.

“Kluge has demonstrated his religious beliefs are sincerely held and he has established a prima facie case for religious discrimination. … Title VII’s religious accommodation provisions do not apply only in a community accepting of the tenets of an employee’s religion.”   

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