Federal judge rules against teacher who refused to use trans students' names and pronouns

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John Kluge, an orchestra teacher at Brownsburg High School in Indiana, refused to use the correct names or pronouns because, he claimed, it violated his religious beliefs.

On Monday, a federal judge ruled against an Indiana teacher who refused to fully comply with a school district's policies on affirming its transgender students.

The Brownsburg Community School Corporation requires teachers to use accurate chosen names and pronouns for transgender students, a policy it implemented in 2017. John Kluge, an orchestra teacher at Brownsburg High School, refused to follow the policy because, he said, it violated his religious beliefs.

In a lawsuit filed in 2019 against the district and a number of district and school officials, Kluge alleged that although the school district agreed to his request for an accommodation whereby he would use last names for all students, teachers and transgender students said it was still disrespectful, and the high school's principal told Kluge in 2018 to follow the policy, be terminated, or resign.

Kluge said he experienced discrimination, retaliation, and harassment and sought back pay, compensatory damages, and punitive damages.

U.S. District Court Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson, who was appointed by former President Barack Obama, ruled against Kluge and dismissed his remaining legal claims against the school district. Kluge can still appeal the case.

Magnus-Stinson wrote:

BCSC has presented evidence that two specific students were affected by Mr. Kluge's conduct and that other students and teachers complained. And, given that Mr. Kluge does not dispute that refusing to affirm transgender students in their identity can cause emotional harm, this harm is likely to be repeated each time a new transgender student joins Mr. Kluge's class (or, as the case may be, chooses not to enroll in music or orchestra classes solely because of Mr. Kluge's behavior). As a matter of law, this is sufficient to demonstrate undue hardship, because if BCSC is not able to meet the needs of all of its students, it is incurring a more than de minimis cost to its mission to provide adequate public education that is equally open to all.

The judge ruled that the school therefore cannot accommodate Kluge's requests based on his religious beliefs. She also noted that "continuing to allow Mr. Kluge an accommodation that resulted in complaints that transgender students felt targeted and dehumanized could have potentially subjected BCBS to a Title IX discrimination lawsuit brought by a transgender student."

Paul Castillo, a counsel and students' rights strategist with Lambda Legal, told The American Independent Foundation, "I think this decision is closely being monitored by school districts with affirming policies all across the country. ... It will be likely cited to in any other cases that involve the same pattern of a teacher trying to escape a school's nondiscrimination policies, including the use of names in classrooms."

Castillo added, "This is a tremendous victory for transgender students who are seeking equal education in classrooms, who are seeking to be safe and respected alongside their peers. I think what's notable in the judge's decision is the school's mission to educate equally all students and that means teachers can't use religion in ways that interfere with the ultimate obligation of the school."

The Indiana case follows another concerning the use of transgender students' pronouns and names: In May, Virginia elementary school teacher Byron "Tanner" Cross told the Loudon County School Board he would not comply with a draft policy that said "staff shall allow gender expansive or transgender students to use their chosen name and gender pronouns that reflect their gender identity without any substantiating evidence."

Loudon County Public Schools put Cross on administrative leave after he told the board in prepared remarks:

We condemn school policies like 8040 and 8035 because it would damage children and defile the holy image of God. I love all of my students, but I would never lie to them, regardless of the consequences. I am a teacher, but I serve God first, and I will not affirm that a biological boy can be a girl, and vice versa, because it is against my religion, it's lying to a child, it's abuse to a child and it's sinning against our God.

Judge James E. Plowman Jr., a Republican sitting on the Virginia 20th Judicial District Court, ruled in favor of Cross and said he must be reinstated, calling his comments protected speech and it had not been proven that he did anything to cause disruption at the school.

Cross brought a lawsuit against the school district with the help of lawyers from Alliance Defending Freedom, a group that often provides legal help to people who claim their religious beliefs shield them from complying with policies that prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ people.

Cross attracted attention from conservatives for his comments. Glenn Youngkin, the Republican nominee for Virginia governor, said of the school district in June, "Now they're trying to cancel him simply for expressing his views that are in the best interests of the children and expressing his faith. It's absolutely shameful." Parents and activists spoke in support of Cross at a school board meeting in June.

Time magazine reported in 2019 that Alliance Defending Freedom, which is designated an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, provided legal support to Kluge in his lawsuit as well.

Castillo said there is an important legal distinction between the Kluge case and the Cross case, however.

"Members of the public certainly can express their views to a school board who are considering a particular policy without any fear that they're going to be disciplined for their views," he said. "It's a wholly different matter when you're talking about a school adopting a policy and then the teacher disregarding that particular policy in the classroom, where you have students who are being impacted. Because you can have personal views but still follow policies."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.