Indiana Youth Group seeks to intervene in lawsuit against Brownsburg schools

A group representing transgender students filed a motion Thursday to intervene in a lawsuit brought by a teacher who claims Brownsburg Community School Corp. violated his religious freedom rights by requiring him to refer to students with gender dysphoria by their preferred names.

Indiana Youth Group, Inc., is asking the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana for permission to intervene as a defendant in John Kluge v. Brownsburg Community School Corporation, 1:19-cv-2462. The nonprofit, which provides support and services to Hoosier LGBTQ youths, told the court the school corporation does not adequately represent IYG’s interests in promoting the safety and health development of LGBTQ youth in Indiana schools.

“IYG staff has spent time counseling transgender students from Brownsburg High School who described feeling stigmatized and excluded by (Kluge’s) refusal to address them in a manner consistent with their gender identity,” the motion to intervene stated. “Through these experiences and working regularly with LGBTQ youth, IYG has become familiar with (Kluge’s) conduct, the harm it caused Brownsburg High School students, and the critical importance of calling transgender students by correct names and pronouns.”

Former Brownsburg orchestra teacher John Kluge filed his lawsuit in June after he was terminated in May 2018. In his amended complaint, the teacher asserted the school’s policy requiring the faculty and staff to refer to transgender students by their preferred names conflicted with his sincerely held religious beliefs that promoting gender dysphoria is sinful.

According to the complaint, Kluge then turned to calling all his students by their last names, as, he said, a sports coach would do. He claimed “the accommodation worked as intended,” but the school told him students were offended, and the schools eventually terminated his employment.

Brownsburg Community School Corp. has not filed a response to Kluge’s complaint, nor did it respond to a request from Indiana Lawyer for comment on IYG’s motion to intervene.

The legal team representing Kluge said IYG is trying to pull a sleight-of-hand by shifting the focus of the lawsuit.

“This case is about a school corporation discriminating against John based on his sincerely held religious beliefs,” said Kevin Green, solo practitioner and one of the attorneys representing Kluge. “It is not about discrimination against transgender students.”

In its motion, IYG asserted Kluge was seeking to demean the transgender students, humiliate them and interfere with their education.

“It is IYG’s mission to ensure that all LGBTQ young people in Indiana are seen, respected, and safe,” Chris Paulsen, chief executive officer of IYG, said in a press release. “Dismissing a transgender person’s identity has deeply harmful and potentially dangerous effects. Young people whose gender identities are not respected have increased rates of depression and suicide. However, when they are supported by their teachers and are allowed to be their true selves, they thrive, and that is something that all young people deserve.”

IYG argued intervention was necessary because it may advance different legal arguments and has different priorities than the school corporation.

Specifically, the nonprofit stated it intends to argue that transgender students have the right to be called by correct names and pronouns under Title IX and the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the 14th Amendment. Conversely, IYG told the court, the school corporation may pursue a legal strategy narrowly focused on getting Kluge’s complaint dismissed rather than protecting the broader rights of transgender students.

Green said Kluge’s decision to use only last names was a win-win solution and reasonable accommodation. Moreover, the school corporation benefited because Kluge remained in the classroom and the musical groups received recognition and awards.

“It’s genius,” Green said of Kluge calling his students by their last names.

However, in its motion, IYG highlighted Aidyn Sucec, who was a transgender student at Brownsburg High School and was in Kluge’s orchestra class. On the first day of class, according to the motion, Kluge referred to Aidyn by his prior and incorrect female name. In the weeks that followed, the teacher addressed Aidyn by only his last name while he would sometimes use honorifics such as “Mr.” with the other students.

Aidyn was so traumatized he quit orchestra and abandoned playing an instrument, the motion said. After Kluge was no longer employed by the school, according to the motion, Aidyn’s peers harassed him using slurs based on sexual orientation. Eventually, Aidyn withdrew from Brownsburg High School.

“My son gets to decide who he is, not his teacher,” Laura Sucec, mother of Aidyn, said in a press release announcing the motion to intervene. “I am frustrated and hurt that Mr. Kluge feels that he can deride and humiliate my son for his identity, depriving him of his dignity and humanity in front of his peers. My son and all transgender people deserve to be supported, not rejected or dismissed.”

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