The Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed summary judgment in favor of an employer in a religious discrimination case involving a teacher who refused to call transgender students by their chosen names.
Prior to the start of the 2017–2018 school year, officials in the Brownsburg Community School Corporation became aware that several transgender students were enrolled as freshmen. After research, discussion with employees and several meetings, the district adopted a policy that required teachers to call all students by the names registered in the school’s official student database.
John M. Kluge, hired in August 2014 as the sole music and orchestra teacher at the high school, objected on religious grounds to using the first names of transgender students to the extent that he deemed those names not consistent with their sex recorded at birth.
Initially, Brownsburg accommodated Kluge’s request to call all students by their last names only. However, the school withdrew the accommodation when it became apparent that the practice was harming students and negatively impacting the learning environment for transgender students, other students in Kluge’s classes and the school generally, as well as the faculty.
Kluge sued, bringing a Title VII religious discrimination and retaliation suit after he was terminated. The district court granted summary judgment for the school and a panel of the Seventh Circuit affirmed.
“[T]he undisputed evidence demonstrates that Kluge’s accommodation harmed students and disrupted the learning environment,” the court said. “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.”
While Kluge established a prima facie case of failure to accommodate, Brownsburg shouldered the burden to demonstrate that it could not reasonably accommodate him without undue hardship on the conduct of its business—in this case, the school’s constitutional and statutory charge to educate all students who enter its doors.
The school asserted that Kluge’s last-names-only practice frustrated its efforts to educate all students because the accommodation negatively impacted students and the learning environment for transgender students and other students as well, and the school produced “copious evidence” that once Kluge’s accommodation was in place, multiple officials began to receive reports and complaints about the harms caused by the last-names-only practice. Transgender students felt insulted and disrespected, as well as isolated, targeted and dehumanized; Kluge also slipped up and used first names or gendered honorifics for non-transgender students.
“Kluge has produced no evidence to the contrary,” the court wrote. “That is, he has produced no evidence tending to show that the transgender students were not emotionally harmed by his practice or that the learning environment was not disrupted. A practice that indisputably caused emotional harm to students and disruptions to the learning environment is an undue hardship to a school as a matter of law.”
In the absence of any evidence known to the employer contradicting the existence of the harms, there is nothing for a jury to decide, the panel added.
“To suggest that the employer may be held liable for a decision to withdraw an accommodation based on information that did not exist at the time of the decision holds employers to an impossible ‘crystal ball’ standard,” the court said.
The court also affirmed summary judgment for the school on Kluge’s retaliation claim, as “he failed to produce evidence that established a but-for causal link between protected activity and the adverse action, and so failed to make out a prima facie case of retaliation,” or “any evidence that the school’s explanation for its actions was a pretext for religious discrimination.”
To read the opinion in Kluge v. Brownsburg Community School Corp., click here.
Why it matters: The Seventh Circuit took a deep dive into religious discrimination claims, affirming summary judgment in favor of the school after concluding that the employee’s accommodation posed an undue hardship. While the opinion offers some helpful guidance for employers, the U.S. Supreme Court recently heard oral argument in Groff v. DeJoy, where a postal worker’s request to not work on Sundays due to his religious observance was denied because of the burden it placed on his coworkers. The justices are set to decide whether to keep the current standard for refusing Title VII religious accommodations (the “more-than-de-minimis” test) and if an employer can demonstrate undue hardship by showing that the requested accommodation burdens the employee’s coworkers rather than the business itself.