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Lawsuit: School’s transgender policy violated teacher’s religious beliefs

June 19, 2019

A Brownsburg music teacher who claims he lost his job because he refused to address transgender students by the first names of their choice has filed a federal lawsuit against the Brownsburg Community School Corporation for violating his First Amendment religious freedom and free speech rights.

John Kluge was hired as a music and orchestra teacher by the school corporation in August 2014. He says he met all the school’s performance expectations and received positive evaluations but was wrongly terminated in May 2018 after he refused to go against his sincerely held religious beliefs and abide by the school’s transgender policy.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday on Kluge’s behalf by the Indiana Family Institute, claims the school corporation violated Kluge’s free exercise of religion and freedom of speech under the First Amendment as well as his right to due process and equal protection under the 14th Amendment.

In addition, the lawsuit asserts Kluge’s right to free exercise of religion under the Indiana Constitution was also violated.

“Defendants’ transgender policies and related practices do not serve any government interests of sufficient magnitude to override Kluge’s right to live according to the dictates of his faith and according to his own conscience,” the complaint states.  

Kluge is seeking an injunction prohibiting Brownsburg schools from enforcing the policies and practices that violate employees’ religious beliefs. He is also asking for back pay and the value of benefits along with compensatory and punitive damages.

According to the 25-page complaint, BCSC changed its policy in early 2017, allowing transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice while teachers were instructed to use the transgender students’ preferred names.

Kluge describes himself as a “professing evangelical Christian” who strives to live daily by his faith. He believes God created mankind as either male or female and that gender is fixed from the moment of conception and cannot be changed regardless of an individual’s feelings or desires.

The complaint states BCSC superintendent James Snapp told Kluge to use the transgender names or lose his job. Kluge was then accused of misconduct and suspended.

In July of 2017, Kluge reached an agreement with Snapp where his religious beliefs would be accommodated by allowing him to address all the students by their last names only. However, at the end of 2017, the school principal, Bret Daghe, told Kluge he should resign because the accommodation was creating tension. In February 2018, the religious accommodation was withdrawn, the lawsuit says, because the school claimed the students were offended at the use of last names.

Kluge explained to the school that he believes “encouraging students to present themselves as the opposite sex by calling them an opposite-sex first name is sinful.” In the complaint, he asserts the school corporation could not identify any undue hardship caused by the accommodation but “simply desired to promote and accommodate transgender beliefs over sincerely-held religious beliefs.”

After submitting his resignation at the end of April 2018, Kluge tried to rescind it but the school ignored the rescission and accepted the resignation. Immediately, Kluge was locked out of the school buildings and the school’s intranet, and his job was posted as vacant.

“The Defendants’ removal of the successful ‘last-names only’ accommodation based on the complaints of students — who suspected he was using last names to avoid transgender names, and wanted Kluge to capitulate — does not amount to undue hardship, but is an impermissible ‘heckler’s veto,’” the complaint states.

 The lawsuit, John M. Kluge v. Brownsburg Community School Corporation, et al., 1:19-cv-2462, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana.

Indianapolis attorneys Michael Cork, Roscoe Stovall, Jr., and Kevin Green are representing Kluge. Brownsburg schools have not yet replied to the suit.

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