Accommodation Under Title VII of a Public School Teacher’s Religious Belief Created an Undue Hardship in Educating Transgender Students

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Recently, the United States Federal District Court, Southern District of Indiana (Indianapolis Division) awarded summary judgment in favor of a public school district, dismissing a former teacher’s Title VII claim, 42 U.S.C. 2002 et seq., based on religious discrimination.  Kluge v. Brownsburg Community School Corp., 2021 WL 2915023 (S.D., Ind., July 12, 2021). A religious accommodation that encumbers a school district’s education mission to serve transgender students creates an undue hardship that supersedes the employee’s exercise of a religious belief.

The school district forced the teacher to retire when he refused to comply with the school district’s “name policy” for transgender students because of his religious belief. The plaintiff was a former high school music teacher. He served as a church elder in his church and was head of his church’s youth group ministries. He adhered to a religious belief that God created mankind as either male or female and that because of his religious belief, “it was sinful to promote gender dysphoria.”  The court accepted the plaintiff’s religious belief as genuine.

In recognition that transgender students faced significant challenges in high school, the school district adopted a student name policy for its faculty and school community.  This name policy required faculty to call students by the name listed in the official education record – PowerSchool. Student name changes in PowerSchool relating to sexual identity depended on the student presenting a letter of support from a parent and a letter of support from a healthcare professional.

Two transgender students took the plaintiff’s music class. The plaintiff informed the school district that it violated his religious belief to refer to students using names and pronouns corresponding to a gender that was not consistent with their biological sex.  Eventually, the school district agreed to an accommodation that the plaintiff could use the student’s last names.

Not long after this accommodation was implemented, the school district’s administration received reports that the accommodation was causing distress to the transgender students. The initial reports came from faculty members associated with the high school’s Equity Alliance, a school district-sponsored club for students who identified with the LGBTQ community. The faculty advisor for Equity Alliance reported that at least two students in this teacher’s music class complained about emotional distress caused by the plaintiff using their last name instead of referring to them by their chosen name as recorded in PowerSchool.

After one semester, the school district revoked the accommodation. The school district advised the teacher that he could comply with the “name policy, resign, or be terminated. The teacher submitted a conditional resignation which the court treated as a forced resignation.

On cross-motions for summary judgment, the court granted judgment to the school district. The school district had a right to revoke the Title VII accommodation in the face of complaints that the accommodation was causing distress to transgender students.

The accommodation of the plaintiff’s religious belief created an undue hardship for the school district. The court recognized that the school district is in the business of providing public education, and this includes providing public education to transgender students. An accommodation that interferes with a student’s education and the school district’s education mission equated to an “undue hardship” for the purposes of Title VII religious accommodation analysis. The last name accommodation created undue hardship since the accommodation compromised the school district’s ability to provide a safe and secure educational environment for transgender students.

The plaintiff relied heavily on the case of Meriwether v. Hartop, 992 F.3d. 492 (6th Cir. 2021), which reached a different result involving a professor in higher education. The United States Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a college professor whom the public university disciplined for refusing to refer to transgender students by their preferred names. The Sixth Circuit ruled that the public university violated the professor’s freedom of speech.

The Indiana Federal District Court distinguished the Meriwether case. Since Meriwether originated in the Sixth Circuit, it was not necessarily binding precedent on the Indiana Federal District Court which is in the Seventh Circuit. Unlike Meriwether, the Indiana case did not involve a First Amendment claim but instead a Title VII claim. Finally, the Indiana court reasoned that there are distinguishing interests between public K-12 schools and public universities when addressing speech and other constitutional issues.

In the context of Title VII employment discrimination claims, a public school district’s interest in providing a safe and secure educational environment to transgender students trumps the need to accommodate a teacher’s religious belief when that accommodation frustrates the public school district’s educational mission. Notwithstanding Indiana Federal District Court’s effort to distinguish the Sixth Circuit Meriwether case, it is likely that this clash of religious and transgender interests will continue to generate litigation, and it is anticipated that this issue will continue to be a difficult one for public school districts.

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