On July 12, 2021, the United States District Court Southern District of Indiana, awarded summary judgment to the Brownsburg Community School Corporation, dismissing a former teacher’s religious discrimination claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Kluge v. Brownsburg Community School Corporation, 2021 WL 2915023 (S.D. Ind., 2021). This Legal Update will review the facts and important lessons from this case.
Plaintiff John Kluge (Kluge) was employed as a Music and Orchestra Teacher by the Brownsburg Community School Corporation (BCSC). At the end of the 2017-2018 school year, BCSC forced Kluge to resign or be terminated because he refused to use transgender students’ preferred names and pronouns due to his religious objections to transgender people.
Kluge is a member of Clearnote Church, which is part of the Evangel Presbytery. He serves as a church elder, head of the youth group ministries, and worship group leader. Kluge’s religious beliefs “are drawn from the bible,” and his “Christian faith governs the way he thinks about human nature, marriage, gender, sexuality, morality, politics and social issues.” He believes that gender is fixed in each person, by God, at conception, and it cannot be changed based on the individual’s feelings or desires. Kluge also believes that affirming an individual’s gender identity as different than their biological sex is sinful because it promotes gender dysphoria and encourages students to identify as transgender.
Before the 2017-2018 school year, BCSC noticed an increased awareness of transgender students’ needs in the school community. In response to various competing concerns, BCSC implemented a new policy (the Name Policy) requiring all staff to address students by the name that appears in the District’s student information database. Under the policy, transgender students could change their first names in the student information database if they presented letters from a parent and a healthcare professional regarding the need for a name change. Students could also change their gender marker and preferred pronouns in the student information system using the same process. In addition to the Name Policy, BCSC allowed transgender students to use the restrooms of their choice and dress according to the gender with which they identified, including wearing school-related uniforms associated with their gender identity.
Just prior to the 2017-2018 school year, Kluge advised BCSC that he could not follow the Name Policy because of his religious objection to using names and pronouns corresponding to students’ gender identity rather than their biological sex assigned at birth. As a result, the BCSC Administration gave Kluge three (3) options: (1) comply with the Name Policy; (2) resign; or (3) be suspended pending termination. Kluge refused to comply with the Name Policy or resign, so the District suspended him.
The following week, Kluge met again with the BCSC Administration and proposed accommodating his religious beliefs by permitting him to address all students by their last names only, similar to the approach many sports coaches use. Kluge also proposed that if questioned why he was using students’ last names, he would respond that he viewed the orchestra as a team and was trying to foster a sense of community. The BCSC Administration agreed to Kluge’s proposed accommodation.
Thereafter, the BCSC Administration received complaints about Kluge’s referring to students by their last names. Transgender students reported they found Kluge’s practice to be insulting and disrespectful. The transgender students also stated they felt isolated and targeted because their presence caused the change in Kluge’s behavior. Faculty advisors for the Equality Alliance student club also reported that Kluge’s behavior was a frequent topic of conversation during their meetings
The BCSC Administration shared these concerns with Kluge and explained that calling students by their last name only would not be a viable accommodation after the 2017-2018 school year. The BCSC Administration suggested that Kluge resign at the end of the school year because he would not be allowed to continue the last names-only accommodation after the 2017-2018 school year. The BCSC Administration further advised Kluge that it was not obligated to accommodate all of his religious beliefs, but instead need only provide reasonable accommodations, and the last names-only accommodation was not reasonable.
Kluge submitted a resignation effective at the end of the school year, although he later tried to rescind the resignation before the BCSC school board accepted it. He subsequently filed suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights of 1964 alleging, among other claims, that BCSC discriminated against him by failing to provide a reasonable accommodation for his religious beliefs.
In awarding summary judgment to BCSC, the District Court concluded that a religious accommodation, which encumbers a school district’s educational mission, creates an “undue hardship” that supersedes the employee’s exercise of a religious belief. The District Court recognized that BCSC is in the “business” of providing public education to all students, including transgender students. Therefore, an accommodation that interferes with a student’s education and the school district’s educational mission is an “undue hardship” under Title VII religious accommodation analysis.
The District Court reasoned that the last names-only accommodation created “undue hardship” because it compromised BCSC’s ability to provide a safe and secure educational environment for transgender students. The District Court stated:
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 healthcare provider.
Accordingly, BCSC was not required to continue the last names-only accommodation. The District Court further concluded that BCSC’s willingness to try the last names-only accommodation for a year did not entitle Kluge to continued accommodation because BCSC’s experience revealed the accommodation created an undue hardship on BCSC. Kluge appealed this case to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
The District Court’s decision is not controlling precedent here in Wisconsin. However, a decision from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals would be. Even before the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals issues a decision, if any, the case is a good reminder that the duty to reasonably accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs is not as rigorous as the duty to reasonably accommodate an employee’s disability.
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a religious accommodation poses an undue hardship if it requires the employer to bear more than a de minimus cost or incur more than a slight burden. In Kluge, the District Court found that the accommodation’s impact on even a small group of students’ education was more than de minimus or slight.
School districts should consider this analysis when they receive requests for religious accommodations related to COVID-19 safety protocols, such as an exemption to a mask requirement. Like the last names-only accommodation, COVID-19 safety protocol exemptions may negatively impact the school district’s mission to educate all students, including students at heightened risk of COVID-19 infection or medically fragile students. Addtionally, implementing alternative COVID-19 safety measures for employees exempted from a masking requirement, such as installing physical barriers, may impose an undue hardship on the school district.
It is critical that school districts analyze employment-related accommodation requests appropriately. The standards for what constitutes a reasonable accommodation varies based on the protected class being accommodated and whether state or federal law applies. Thus, school districts should consult with legal counsel whenever they receive employment-related accommodation requests to ensure legal compliance.