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A Christian teacher demanded a religious exemption to using trans students’ names. A judge said no.

John Kluge
John KlugePhoto: Screenshot/RTV6

A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit from a Christian teacher who sued the school he used to work at because he said that the school’s policy of calling trans kids by their names violated his sincerely held religious beliefs.

Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson in Indianapolis said that even though she has no doubt that former music teacher John Kluge is a devout Christian and has a sincere “religious opposition to transgenderism,” his religious beliefs cannot interfere with the school district’s “mission to provide adequate public education that is equally open to all.”

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Kluge taught orchestra at Brownsburg High School in Indiana since 2014. In 2017, the school formed a policy for how to better welcome transgender students, and Kluge objected to it, submitting a letter to the principal saying that he cannot, as a Christian, refer to trans students by their first name and is required by his religion to deadname them.

He and the school’s administration agreed to an accommodation: he’d call all students by their last names and avoid pronouns for everyone. If anyone asked, he was supposed to say that he uses last names to sound more like a sports coach.

While that seemed like an adequate compromise at first, it turns out it was hard for Kluge to remember to call students by their last names all the time. Sometimes he used first names when talking with cis students, sometimes he added a “Mr.” or “Ms.,” and the trans students noticed that he was avoiding talking to them altogether.

According to one filing in the case, a trans student said Kluge’s behavior made him “feel alienated, upset, and dehumanized. It made me dread going to orchestra class each day.”

A few months after the compromise was made, the principal told Kluge that calling students by last names was “creating tension in the students and faculty” and they discussed his resignation. In another meeting with administrators, he was told his “accommodation was not reasonable” and that he either had to resign or he would be fired. He resigned, but later changed his mind and sued.

He tried to argue that his First Amendment free speech and free exercise of religion rights were violated because the Brownsburg Community School Corporation (BCSC) is a government entity telling him what to say and how to practice his religion.

But Judge Magnus-Stinson rejected those claims out of hand last year. Kluge was a government employee being told how to do his job by his employer, not a private citizen being told by the government what he had to say.

She allowed his religious discrimination claim under Title VII to be heard, and this week she ruled against him and dismissed his lawsuit.

Kluge argued that he needed a reasonable accommodation to do his job, like how other employers might be required to adjust uniform rules for Jewish or Sikh employees. But for an accommodation to be reasonable, he would have to be able to adequately perform his job duties.

And Magnus-Stinson wasn’t convinced that the accommodation he requested – referring to students by their last names – was reasonable. She cited testimony from two trans students, Aidyn and Sam, who said Kluge’s behavior “made them feel targeted and uncomfortable.”

“Aidyn dreaded going to orchestra class and did not feel comfortable speaking to Mr. Kluge directly,” Magnus-Stinson wrote in her decision. “Other students and teachers complained that Mr. Kluge’s behavior was insulting or offensive and made his classroom environment unwelcoming and uncomfortable. Aidyn quit orchestra entirely.”

Kluge submitted statements from several students who didn’t have a problem with his policy. But the judge said that’s not enough because his policy interfered with BSCS’s mission of providing an education for everyone, not just the students who were willing to tolerate Kluge’s practices, and therefore made the accommodation unreasonable.

The judge also said that BSCS could be sued under Title IX for discriminating against trans students by allowing Kluge to refuse to use trans students’ first names, and a reasonable accommodation can’t leave the employer open to liability.

Since Kluge couldn’t name another reasonable accommodation, the judge dismissed his claims.