Court Upholds School’s Decision To Deny Teacher’s Religious Accommodation To Pronoun Policy

CATEGORY: Private Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education
DATE: May 29, 2024

Brownsburg Community School Corporation, a public school in Indiana, determined that if a student, the student’s parents, and a health care provider requested that the student be called by a preferred name, that name would be entered in PowerSchool, the School’s official student database.  Teachers were then required to call the student by that name.

A music and orchestra teacher, John Kluge, identifies as a Christian and is a member of Clearnote Church, which is part of Evangel Presbytery.  Kluge serves as head of his church’s youth group ministries, head of a discipleship program for children, and leader of a worship group.  Kluge believes that God created mankind as either male or female, and that gender is fixed at the moment of conception and cannot be changed.  He also believes that he cannot affirm as true ideas and concepts that he deems untrue and sinful.  As a result, Kluge believes it is sinful to promote gender dysphoria or to be transgender.  Based on these beliefs, it is sinful for Kluge to encourage students in transgenderism.

Kluge objected to the School’s name policy on religious grounds, and requested an accommodation so that he could refer to all students by last name only.  The School initially granted the accommodation.  Kluge agreed not to use honorifics, such as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” to refer to any students, and if a student asked why he was using last names only, he would respond that he views the orchestra like a sports team and was trying to foster a sense of community.  Kluge also understood he would not be required to distribute gender-specific orchestra uniforms to students.

The School received complaints from teachers and students about this policy.  In particular, a teacher relayed a complaint from two transgender students that using last names only was insulting and disrespectful, and students were feeling harmed by the last name only policy.  Multiple students said that Kluge would occasionally use honorifics or gendered pronouns when talking to non-transgender students.

The School initially granted the accommodation, but withdrew it for the next school year, finding that the practice was detrimental not only to transgender students’ well-being, but also to the learning environment for other students and faculty.  The School felt that the burden undermined their business of fostering a safe and inclusive learning environment for all students.  Kluge was told he would have to follow the name policy to continue his employment, otherwise he would have to resign or be terminated.

Kluge submitted his resignation on April 30, 2018.  In the resignation letter, Kluge said he was resigning because of the name policy, the School’s decision to no longer provide him an accommodation, and Kluge’s Christian beliefs not allowing him to call transgender students by their preferred names and pronouns.  Kluge attempted to revoke his resignation, but the School ultimately declined that revocation and accepted his resignation.

Kluge filed suit, asserting that the School failed to accommodate his religious beliefs in violation of Title VII.  The trial court ruled in favor of the School.  Kluge appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.  In the interim, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Groff v. DeJoy, which clarified the standard for a party to claim an undue hardship defense in Title VII religious accommodation cases.

Formerly, it was an undue hardship to require an employer to accommodate an employee’s religion if it resulted in anything beyond a “de minimis cost.”  After Groff, the standard was clarified; now, it is an undue hardship if granting the accommodation would result in “substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.”

In light of the findings in Groff, courts must now consider all relevant factors, including the accommodations at issue and their practical impact in light of the nature, size, and operating cost of an employer.  Certain kinds of costs are irrelevant in evaluating undue hardship, including non-economic costs.

Here, the Court considered that schools are not for-profit corporations, meaning their costs differ from a traditional employer.  The Court considered the School’s arguments that their mission is to foster a safe and inclusive learning environment, which is rooted in Indiana state law.  Indiana state law requires public school teachers to receive training on social emotional learning classroom practices that are supportive to students.  The Court also considered the substantial student harm that resulted from the accommodation.  Students and teachers alike complained that Kluge’s behavior was offensive, and his classroom environment was uncomfortable and unwelcoming, and was disruptive to the student’s learning environment.

On the other hand, Kluge argued that a few complaints did not arise to the level of undue hardship under Groff.  The Court disagreed.  The School received reports from students, parents, and teachers that students were uncomfortable in the class and bringing those conversations that occurred in his class to other classrooms.  The Court considered that students dreaded going to class, and one student quit orchestra entirely.  The Court found this was evidence that the last name only accommodation burdened the School’s ability to provide a supportive environment for its students.

Kluge argued that the School failed to identify alternative solutions.  The Court did not find this persuasive because students must be addressed by some name, and it was clear that Kluge would agree to nothing short of using only last names.

The Court also considered a separate argument from the School that continuing this accommodation would expose the School to potential liability—that is, condoning a teacher’s refusal to call students by their first names because they are transgender could amount to gender discrimination.  The Court found that the name accommodation did place the School at risk of litigation and the potential to lose their Title IX funding.

The Court granted the School’s motion for summary judgment under Groff.

Note:  This case applied the Supreme Court’s recent decision on religious accommodations to the school environment.  It also illustrates the tensions that can arise between a student’s rights to be free from gender discrimination and an employee’s freedom of religion rights. 

Kluge v. Brownsburg Cmty. Sch. Corp. (S.D. Ind. Apr. 30, 2024) 2024 U.S.Dist. LEXIS 78340.

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