What’s In A name?: Federal Court In Indiana Dismisses Teacher’s Religious Discrimination Over The Use Of Students’ Preferred Names

Husch Blackwell LLP

John Kluge, a former music and orchestra teacher at Brownsburg Community School Corporation (“BCSC”) allegedly was forced to resign after refusing to refer to transgender students by the names selected by the students, their parents, and their healthcare providers due to the teacher’s religious objections. Kluge identified as Christian and claimed that referring to students by their preferred names would “encourage students in transgenderism” and “promote gender dysphoria,” which went against his religious beliefs that “God created mankind as either male or female.” Initially, BCSC provided Kluge with the option of referring to students using only their last names, but ultimately, that accommodation was rescinded after several complaints were brought forward from other teachers, students, and parents regarding the negative impacts this practice had on transgender students.

Kluge filed a motion for partial summary judgment, seeking judgment in favor on his failure to accommodate claim and BCSC filed a cross-motion for summary judgment seeking judgment in its favor on both claims. The United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana sided with the school district. In its order, the Court concluded that Kluge had established a prima facie case of discrimination, but that the undisputed evidence also demonstrated that the last-names-only accommodation resulted in undue hardship to BCSC – primarily, because Kluge’s use of the last names hampered BCSC’s ability to provide an education to all students and conflicted with its policy of creating a safe and supportive environment for all students. The Court also noted, “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.” According to the Court, the increased risk of liability also constituted an undue hardship that Title VII did not require BCSC to bear.

With respect to Kluge’s retaliation claim, the Court determined that the last-names-only arrangement was withdrawn because of complaints causing undue hardship, not because of any hostility to Kluge’s religious beliefs or because of his request for accommodations.

The Court concluded, “So, what’s in a name?” The Court noted that it “is ill-equipped to answer that question definitively,” but for the reasons the Court articulated in its Order, it concluded 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.”

What does this mean for you?

This decision will be persuasive precedent for district courts across the country litigating similar issues in the wake of decisions affirming the rights of transgender individuals such as Bostock and Grimm. Consequently, school districts should prepare to address concerns from teachers and staff about their sincerely held religious beliefs related to LGBTQIA+ individuals, while ensuring that their policies and procedures align with these landmark cases.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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