News (USA)

Federal judge says Christian teacher has no right misgender students

John Kluge
John KlugePhoto: Screenshot/RTV6

A federal appeals court just told a public school teacher that he does not have a constitutional right to misgender transgender students.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, based in Chicago, ruled that Brownsburg, Indiana orchestra teacher John Kluge could not use his religion as an excuse to violate the school’s policy on transgender students.

Kluge said that he was forced to resign in 2018 because he didn’t want to follow Brownsburg High School’s policy on transgender students. The policy said that trans students who submit written consent from a doctor and a parent must be referred to with their correct names and pronouns.

Kluge said that, as a Christian, he had to call those students by the names they were given at birth.

“I’m being compelled to encourage students in what I believe is something that’s a dangerous lifestyle,” he said at the time. “I’m fine to teach students with other beliefs, but the fact that teachers are being compelled to speak a certain way is the scary thing.”

Kluge said that he had an agreement with administrators to refer to all students by their last names and avoid pronouns entirely. He was supposed to say that he was trying to sound like a sports coach if anyone asked why he was using last names.

It turned out he couldn’t maintain that level of artifice in his speech and used first names anyway when he was talking to cisgender students. Trans students noticed that he avoided 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.”

The principal met with Kluge and said that his behavior was “creating tension in the students and faculty.” He resigned but later changed his mind and sued the school district in 2019, claiming that his religious freedom was violated.

In 2021, a federal judge in Indianapolis ruled against him. Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson said that when he’s in the classroom he is no longer just a private citizen but a representative of his employer.

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.”

And now Kluge has lost his appeal.

“Kluge’s last-names-only practice stigmatized the transgender students and caused them demonstrable emotional harm,” Circuit Court Judge Ilana Rovner wrote in the court’s opinion.

One judge dissented because it was unclear whether the school tried to mitigate the negative impacts of the “last name only” policy. He also said that a jury should have decided the original case.

Kluge was represented by the anti-LGBTQ+ and Souther Poverty Law Center-designated hate group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). ADF lawyer Rory Gray said he’s not sure whether they will appeal.

“The Seventh Circuit’s ruling shows why the Supreme Court needs to fix the standard for accommodating religious employees,” he said.

Kluge initially tried to say that his objection to using the correct names and pronouns for trans students was that transgender people face a high suicide rate. A study at the University of Texas at Austin, though, showed that transgender youth who are able to go by their real names are less likely to have suicidal thoughts and to attempt suicide.

“He said that he doesn’t want to condone students going down a path where 20 percent of trans people try to kill themselves but I don’t think he recognizes the people like him and doing things like this are the reason that 20 percent of trans people try to kill themselves,” one of his former students, Aidyn Sucec, said.

“I know he thinks he’s doing the right thing but he’s not listening to the actual people this affects.”

Editor’s note: This article mentions suicide. If you need to talk to someone now, call the Trans Lifeline at 1-877-565-8860. It’s staffed by trans people, for trans people. The Trevor Project provides a safe, judgement-free place to talk for LGBTQ youth at 1-866-488-7386. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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