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Federal judge rules against former Brownsburg teacher over names of transgender students

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — A federal judge in Indianapolis has ruled against a former Brownsburg teacher who said he was forced to resign after refusing to call transgender students by their chosen names.

The judge on Monday rejected former orchestra teacher John Kluge’s allegations of religious discrimination and retaliation against the Brownsburg Community School Corporation.

According to the judge, Kluge’s “religious opposition to transgenderism is directly at odds with [the district’s] policy of respect for transgender students, which is grounded in supporting and affirming those students.”

The judge also concluded that a public school corporation “has an obligation to meet the needs of all of its students, not just a majority of students or the students that were unaware of or unbothered by Mr. Kluge’s practice of using last names only.”

Kluge worked at Brownsburg High School as a music and orchestra teacher from 2014 until May 2018, when his resignation was accepted.

According to court filings, faculty during meetings in early 2017 began talking about transgender students and “how teachers can encourage and support them.” After that, faculty and staff approached the high school’s principal for direction on how to address transgender students.

In May 2017, Kluge and three other teachers presented the principal with a signed letter expressing religious objections to to transgenderism, asking that faculty and staff not be required to refer to transgender students by their preferred pronouns. In the letter, they also said they did not want transgender students to be allowed to use the restrooms or locker rooms of their choice, according to court filings.

Later in May, the district adopted a policy that required all staff to refer to students by their chosen name listed in the school records. According to the court filing, “students could change their first names in PowerSchool if they presented a letter from a parent and a letter from a healthcare professional regarding the need for a name change.”

The policy also allowed transgender students to use restrooms of their choice and dress according to the gender with which they identified.

The teachers who had joined Kluge in writing the letter to the principle accepted the name policy, while Kluge did not, the court filing said.

In July, Kluge told the principal he could not follow the name policy, and the principal gave him three options: follow the policy; resign; or be suspended, pending termination. Kluge refused to follow the policy or resign, so he was suspended, the court filing said.

At the end of July, Kluge met with the district superintendent and the human resources director and proposed that he call all students by last names only. The administrators agreed, and Kluge signed a document to that effect. They also agreed that he would not be responsible for handing out gender-specific uniforms to students. If any student asked him directly why he was using last names only, he was to say “that he views the orchestra class like a sports team and was trying to foster a sense of community,” the court filing said.

Starting at the end of August and continuing through the end of 2017, the school’s principal began receiving concerns from staff and students about Kluge’s use of last names. Some students also said that Kluge used the first names of some students from time to time, that he sometimes avoided calling on or talking to transgender students and that all the students knew the reason for his using last names only. One transgender student said he felt Kluge avoided him and made him “feel alienated, upset, and dehumanized. It made me dread going to orchestra class each day,” the court filing said.

Another group of students said they had never heard Kluge stray from calling students by last names during the semester and said they had not witnessed him treating the transgender students differently, the court filing said.

The principal met with Kluge in December and told him using last names only was “creating tension in the students and faculty” and told him it might be good for him to resign at the end of the year.

In January 2018, administrators provided a Q&A document about the district’s policies toward transgender students. One of those topics was the use of last names only, which the district had been agreed upon during the 2017-18 school year, but that “moving forward it is our expectation the student will be called by the first name” listed in school records. Kluge responded to the document by asking if he would still be allowed to call the students by their last names only.

In a February meeting, administrators told Kluge he would no longer be allowed to continue that practice, saying the “accommodation was not reasonable.” They went on to discuss whether Kluge would finish the school year or resign mid-year and offered to let him submit his resignation and not process it or tell anyone about it until the end of the school year. Kluge told the court the explanation of the resignation process led him to believe he could turn in a “conditional resignation” that he could later withdraw.

In March, Kluge was once again given the same options: follow the name policy and keep working for the district, resign or be terminated. He was told if he didn’t submit his resignation by May 1, the district would begin the termination process.

On April 30, Kluge emailed the human resources director with a formal resignation and asked that it not be shared with anyone until May 29. In the letter, he said he was resigning because of the district’s name policy and the loss of his accommodation.

At a May orchestra awards ceremony, Kluge addressed all the students by their first and last names, including referring to the transgender students by their preferred first names.

According to the court filing, “Kluge explained that he used first and last names because ‘it would have been unreasonable and conspicuous’ to refer to students by last names only at a formal event. Mr. Kluge also opined that referring to students by last name only at the awards ceremony would be inconsistent with the last names only accommodation, because the accommodation was based on the understanding that he would address students like a sports coach would, and a sports coach would likely use first and last names at a formal event.”

On May 25, Kluge sent the human resources director a message which said he planned to withdraw his intention to resign, accused the district of discrimination based on his religious beliefs and asked to continue using last names only to refer to students. Hours after that message, the district locked him out of the school buildings and internet database and listed his job as vacant, the court filing said.

At a June 11 board meeting, Kluge asked the board not to accept his resignation, and members of the community spoke both for and against his termination. The board approved his resignation.

The judge concluded that “any contention that Mr. Kluge’s resignation was coerced through misrepresentation is wholly without merit” and that Kluge did not show evidence that he had proposed an alternative accommodation after being told the last names would not work.

“So, what’s in a name? This Court is ill-equipped to answer that question definitively, but for the reasons articulated in this Order, it concludes 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. Because BCSC did not coerce Mr. Kluge’s resignation by misrepresentation and could not accommodate Mr. Kluge’s religious beliefs without sustaining undue hardship, and because Mr. Kluge has failed to make a meaningful argument or adduce evidence in support of a claim for retaliation,” the district’s motion was granted, the judge said.

Statement issued after story aired

“A civil party has thirty days from a Notice of Judgment from the Southern District of Indiana Court, in our case Monday July 12, to appeal to Chicago’s 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. Judge Magnus-Stinson’s 52-page ruling covers multiple aspects. Per 7th Circuit rules, even the 30 day timetable is subject to a range of options laid out in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. We are evaluating the situation and have no further comment at this time.”

Statement on July 16, 2021, from Kevin Green, attorney for John Kluge