Court backs school district in teacher firing over transgender students’ names

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An Indiana school district did not violate a former music teacher’s rights by pushing him to resign after the man refused to use transgender students’ names and gender pronouns, a federal appeals court said in an order released Friday.

The decision from the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a prior ruling in the case by a federal judge.

According to court records, John Kluge was hired in 2014 as the music and orchestra teacher for Brownsburg High School about 20 miles northwest of Indianapolis.

In 2017, district officials began requiring the high school’s teachers to use the names and pronouns listed in the school’s official student database, where changes were permitted with letters from a student’s parent and a doctor.

Kluge told the school’s principal, Bret Daghe, on the first day of classes for the 2017 school year that he had a religious objection to using transgender students’ names and pronouns.

District officials agreed that Kluge could call students by their last name and would not be responsible for handing out orchestra clothing.

But at least two transgender students reported that Kluge’s refusal to use their first names singled them out in front of peers and was hurtful. Other students, teachers and counselors also told officials that the issue made Kluge’s classroom uncomfortable for many.

In January, the district told teachers that everyone would be required to use the names and pronouns listed for students in the database. In response to Kluge questioning whether the rule would also apply to him, officials told him he could abide by it, resign or be fired.

Kluge resigned and then sued the school for religious discrimination.

An Indiana federal judge ruled that Kluge’s refusal to use transgender students’ names and pronouns created an undue hardship on the district, which is responsible for educating all of its students.

The appeals court agreed, writing that district officials tried to accommodate Kluge’s religious objection but realized that letting the music teacher use last names “resulted in students feeling disrespected, targeted, and dehumanized, and in disruptions to the learning environment.”

“Brownsburg has demonstrated as a matter of law that the requested accommodation worked an undue burden on the school’s educational mission by harming transgender students and negatively impacting the learning environment for transgender students, for other students in Kluge’s classes and in the school generally, and for faculty,” the opinion read.

Rory Gray, an attorney with the conservative legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, is representing Kluge and said they are considering next steps.

“Congress passed Title VII to prevent employers from forcing workers to abandon their beliefs to keep their jobs,” Gray said in a statement. “In this case, Mr. Kluge went out of his way to accommodate his students and treat them all with respect. The school district even permitted this accommodation before unlawfully punishing Mr. Kluge for his religious beliefs.”

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