Court Dismisses Religious Accommodation, Retaliation Claims by Teacher Over Transgender Name Policy

Author: Robert S. Teachout, XpertHR Legal Editor

July 28, 2021

An accommodation to allow a former teacher to not call transgender students by their preferred names would have created an undue hardship for his employer, an Indiana federal district court has ruled, holding that the requested accommodation conflicted with the employer's broader policy of creating a safe and supportive environment for all students. The court also dismissed the teacher's retaliation claim, finding that the employer's actions were not motivated in retaliation for the teacher's religious accommodation request.

John Kluge was a teacher for Brownsburg Community School Corporation (BCSC). In May 2017, the school implemented a policy requiring teachers to call students by the name recorded in the school records database. Transgender students were allowed to change their name provided they presented a letter from a parent and from a healthcare professional regarding the need for a name change. Students could also then change their gender marker and preferred pronouns.

Kluge objected to calling transgender students by their preferred names based on his religious belief that gender is set by God and cannot be changed, and requested an accommodation to be excused from the policy. The school allowed Kluge instead to address all students in his classes only by their last names. However, the accommodation was rescinded after complaints were received from several parents, students and other teachers saying that the accommodation was harmful to transgender students.

Kluge refused to comply with the policy and resigned. He then filed the claim under Title VII alleging the school failed to accommodate his religious belief and had retaliated against him for seeking the accommodation.

In its ruling, the court determined that the last-names-only accommodation resulted in undue hardship to BCSC. Specifically, the accommodation conflicted with its policy of creating a safe and supportive environment for all students and could have potentially subjected BCSC to a Title IX discrimination lawsuit.

The issue of conflicts between transgender rights and accommodation for religious beliefs is not new. Employers should follow legal requirements and best practices to not discriminate against and to be inclusive of transgender employees. The EEOC has recently issued guidance to employers on preferred pronoun use and other workplace issues for transgender employees.

Employers also must attempt to comply with the Title VII requirement to provide accommodation for religious beliefs. But as this case illustrates, accommodations that create an undue burden on the employer are not required, and an accommodation for one employee's religious beliefs must not itself lead to discrimination against individuals based on a protected characteristic, such as gender identity.