Ex-music teacher who refused to follow Brownsburg Schools’ transgender name policy loses on religious discrimination claims

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Editor’s note: This story has been updated.

A former Brownsburg music teacher who resigned after refusing to abide by a school policy on how to address transgender students has lost his bid for partial summary judgement on his religious discrimination claims against the school district.

Penned by Indiana Southern District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson, the 52-page order in the case of John M. Kluge v. Brownsburg Community School Corporation, 1:19-cv-2462, found that former music teacher John Kluge “failed to make a meaningful argument or adduce evidence in support of a claim for retaliation,” and that the school “did not coerce (his) resignation by misrepresentation and could not accommodate his religious beliefs without sustaining undue hardship … .”

Kluge was formerly employed as a music and orchestra teacher for Brownsburg Community School Corporation but was forced to resign in the summer of 2018 after refusing to refer to transgender students by the names selected by the students, their parents and their health care providers. Kluge said referring to transgender students by their preferred names would be “promoting transgenderism,” which his religion did not allow, according to the court’s Monday order.

Prior to his resignation, Kluge was given three options: abide by the policy, resign or be terminated. A system was devised that allowed him to refer to all students by their last names, similar to an athletic coach. But complaints against that approach ultimately led to Kluge’s resignation, which he asked the school board not to accept.

Kluge, who describes himself as a “professing evangelical Christian,” sued for religious discrimination and raised 13 claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the First and 14th Amendments, the Indiana Constitution and other state law provisions.

Although Kluge sued the school district and individual employees, all of the individual-capacity claims were dismissed by Magnus-Stinson in a January 2020 order. However, the Southern District Court allowed his retaliation and accommodation claims to continue. 

“So, what’s in a name? This Court is ill-equipped to answer that question definitively, but for the reasons articulated in this Order, it concludes 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,” Magnus-Stinson wrote in the order granting BCSC’s cross-motion for summary judgment.

Any contention that Kluge’s resignation was coerced through misrepresentation is wholly without merit, she concluded.

“The misrepresentation, according to Mr. Kluge, is that he was led to believe that he could submit a conditional resignation. But this argument is not supported by the evidence,” Magnus-Stinson wrote.

She added that even if Kluge thought he was permitted to submit a conditional or rescindable resignation, he failed to actually do so. Additionally, the evidence presented along with the summary judgment motions demonstrated that Kluge was never told that his resignation could be conditional or that he could withdraw it for any reason.

The judge further noted that the law did not require the school corporation to propose an alternative accommodation or to engage in further discussions regarding a potential accommodation for Kluge.

As to Kluge’s religious beliefs, the court found that they objectively conflicted with the name policy and BCSC’s other requirements concerning how faculty and staff address and refer to transgender students. However, it found sufficient evidence to demonstrate undue hardship, noting that “if BCSC is not able to meet the needs of all of its students, it is incurring a more than de minimis cost to its mission to provide adequate public education that is equally open to all.”

“In this case, continuing to allow Mr. Kluge an accommodation that resulted in complaints that transgender students felt targeted and dehumanized could potentially have subjected BCSC to a Title IX discrimination lawsuit brought by a transgender student. Whether such lawsuit would ultimately have been successful is not for the Court to decide at this juncture, as it is sufficient that the state of the law during Mr. Kluge’s employment created a risk of liability, and BCSC considered that risk in determining how to resolve Mr. Kluge’s objections to the policies concerning transgender students,” Magnus-Stinson wrote.

She concluded by finding that Kluge did not present evidence from which a reasonable fact-finder could conclude that a causal connection existed between his protected activity and his ultimate resignation, that any of BCSC’s reasons for the actions it took against him were pretextual, or that any of BCSC’s actions were motivated by retaliatory animus.

Lastly, the district court denied a motion for leave to file brief of amici curiae filed by the National Association of Social Workers and its Indiana chapter, the American Academy of Pediatrics and its Indiana chapter, the American Medical Association and Indiana Youth Group. It found that empirical data from nonparties concerning the importance of honoring a transgender student’s preferred name and pronouns was not necessary to resolve the issues currently before it.

Kevin Green, an attorney representing Kluge, told Indiana Lawyer that Kluge’s legal team is “evaluating Judge Magnus-Stinson’s order, which we just received yesterday, to consider our options going forward. Beyond that, it’s too early to comment.”

Indiana Lawyer has also reached out to counsel for the school district for comment.

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