INDIANAPOLIS — The lawyers representing a former Brownsburg teacher who resigned after he refused to call transgender students by their preferred names are once again asking the Indianapolis federal court to consider his claims of religious discrimination and retaliation.
John Kluge, a former orchestra teacher at Brownsburg High School, previously filed a lawsuit against the district, claiming that the district made him resign over its transgender student policy.
Kluge said at the time that the district’s requirement that teachers call transgender students by their preferred names, rather than those given at birth, goes against his religious beliefs. During a June 2018 school board meeting, Kluge’s resignation was accepted, even though he attempted to rescind the resignation.
In a federal lawsuit, an Indianapolis federal court judge ruled in July 2021 that the Brownsburg Community School Corporation did not coerce Kluge into resigning and that the district could not accommodate Kluge’s religious beliefs without sustaining “undue hardship,” in its transgender student policy. The court also said that Kluge failed to make a meaningful argument or “adduce evidence in support of a claim for retaliation.”
An April 2023 ruling by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Indianapolis federal court ruling, stating that the district did not violate his rights.
In the newest argument from Kluge’s legal team, Kluge continues to claim that he was religiously discriminated against and retaliated against by the school district. The team is seeking a summary judgment, stating that the district has failed to accommodate Kluge’s “sincerely held religious belief in the absence of undue hardship and for retaliating against him for insisting on such accommodation.”
In the new motion, filed on Friday in Indianapolis federal court, Kluge’s legal team said in response to the district’s policies he asked for and received “a modest accommodation” to call all students by their last names “allowing him to stay neutral on transgender issues and focus on teaching music.”
However, the motion claims that the district pressured Kluge to resign when “a few people grumbled” about the accommodation. When Kluge reportedly refused to resign, the accommodation was revoked, which the documents said forced him to resign or be fired.
The motion claims that the district’s reaction posed “more than a ‘slight burden.'” However, the motion stressed that the Supreme Court ruled complaints from coworkers or constituents based on hostility to a religious practice or to accommodating it do not show undue hardship. They said it does not also provide legitimate reasons for adverse actions by the district.
The motion argues that Kluge is entitled to a summary judgment in this case based on his religious discrimination claim because the district revoked the accommodation, which they argue was reasonable, without “showing undue hardship.”
“Mr. Kluge sought and received a reasonable accommodation that allowed him to teach music, abide by his religious beliefs and remain neutral on transgender issues,” the motion read. “But the district revoked it based on complaints from a few teachers and students hostile to Mr. Kluge’s religious beliefs, complaints that – as a matter of law – cannot serve as an undue hardship.”
The motion also claims that the district “repeatedly forced” Kluge to choose between his beliefs and his job, demanding that he follow the policy and violate his beliefs, resign and keep his summer pay or face termination and lose that pay.
“From then on, (the district) ignored his religious-discrimination claims and its own policy that required a formal investigation,” the documents said. “It forced him to resign conditionally to support his family… Then it pushed his coerced resignation through, ignoring his pleas to keep his job.”
Ultimately, the lawyers argue that the district accommodating Kluge’s beliefs caused undue hardship to the district. They stress a few “third-party grumblings” did not justify the district allegedly forcing Kluge to resign.
“Federal law protects employees’ ability to live and work according to their religious beliefs. Yet the Brownsburg school district ignored the law, deciding Mr. Kluge’s religious views couldn’t be tolerated, revoked his religious accommodation based on the grumblings of a few, and forced him to resign or be fired,” ADF Senior Counsel Travis Barham said in a news release from Alliance Defending Freedom, the group representing Kluge.