Appeals court correctly rejects religiously motivated bigotry

Kluge PR credit Ted Eytan

Copyright: Ted Eytan

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is encouraged by an appeals court decision affirming that public schools can require even religious teachers to call transgender students by their preferred names.

FFRF filed an amicus brief in the case, Kluge v. Brownsburg Community School Corporation, on behalf of the Secular Student Alliance that focused on how teachers’ religiously motivated conduct has an impact on students. The brief argued that the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals should consider unique aspects of the educational environment when analyzing undue hardship.

After Brownsburg (Indiana) High School music teacher John Kluge sought to avoid using the name of a transgender student in accordance with the school’s name and pronouns policy, the school agreed he could call students just by their last names. The parent of a transgender student noted, however, that the teacher continued to call the student “Miss,” causing the student “a lot of distress.” Other students complained regularly that the practice also made them uncomfortable. The Brownsburg Community School Corporation subsequently revoked the last-name policy, and the teacher brought a religious discrimination claim against the district, saying that the school system failed to accommodate him. Kluge is represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, an extremist Christian nationalist legal group. After the district court ruled in favor of the school district, Kluge then appealed to the 7th U.S. Circuit.

The appeals court has handed down a 2-1 decision upholding the school’s dismissal of Kluge. “Kluge’s last-names-only practice stigmatized the transgender students and caused them demonstrable emotional harm,” Judge Ilana Rovner wrote for the court. The court found that district officials tried to accommodate Kluge’s religious objection, but realized that the teacher’s response “resulted in students feeling disrespected, targeted and dehumanized, and in disruptions to the learning environment.”

“Brownsburg has demonstrated as a matter of law that the requested accommodation worked an undue burden on the school’s educational mission by harming transgender students and negatively impacting the learning environment for transgender students, for other students in Kluge’s classes and in the school generally, and for faculty,” the opinion continued. “Because no reasonable jury could conclude that harm to students and disruption to the learning environment are de minimis harms to a school’s conduct of its business, we affirm.”

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Michael Brennan said it was unclear whether the school could have mitigated any disruptions resulting from Kluge’s conduct, and that a jury should decide whether his rights were violated:

Without supporting authority, my colleagues hold that the undue hardship inquiry looks only to evidence within the employer’s knowledge at the time of the adverse employment decision. … Considering the entire record, there is a genuine issue of material fact on undue hardship, which we should remand for trial.

FFRF applauds the circuit court’s judgment.

“The ruling is an important win for trans rights, which are under concerted attack by Christian nationalists across the country,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. She adds that FFRF is pleased to see that the court also rejected the notion that religious rights trump all others, and that Christians need not abide by neutral laws and rules under the guise of “religious freedom.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is the largest association of freethinkers in the United States, representing over 40,000 atheists, agnostics and other nonreligious Americans, with several chapters nationwide, including more than 500 members and a chapter in Indiana. FFRF’s two primary purposes are to educate the public about nontheism and to defend the constitutional principle of separation between state and church.

The Secular Student Alliance, the only national organization dedicated to atheist, humanist and other nontheist students, empowers secular students to proudly express their identity, build welcoming communities, promote secular values and set a course for lifelong activism.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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