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Indiana music teacher forced to resign over pronoun usage asks full 7th Circuit to hear case

ADF attorneys represent John Kluge in appeal of district court’s ruling

Friday, Apr 21, 2023

CHICAGO – Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing an Indiana high school music teacher filed a petition with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit Friday that asks the full court to hear the teacher’s case against an Indiana school district after a split panel of judges ruled 2-1 against him. Music theory and orchestra teacher John Kluge is asking for reversal of a lower-court decision that ruled for the Brownsburg Community School Corporation. The school district forced Kluge to resign after revoking his religious accommodation of calling all students by their last names to stay neutral and avoid speaking in violation of his religious beliefs.

“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 on pain of termination,” said ADF Senior Counsel and Vice President of Appellate Advocacy John Bursch. “The school district’s decision violates Title VII which makes it unlawful to discriminate against someone on the basis of religion. We are asking the full 7th Circuit to take this case, reverse this unlawful decision, and rule on the side of religious freedom.”

“Mr. Kluge had an excellent reputation as a fun and caring teacher, and under his skillful direction, the Brownsburg orchestra performed better than ever before. But the school district showed it didn’t care about those qualities; it was interested only in ensuring that Mr. Kluge conformed his speech to students’ declared gender identities—even though this directly violated his deeply-held religious beliefs,” said ADF Senior Counsel Rory Gray. “As we explained in a friend-of-the-court brief that we filed in Groff v. DeJoy, a case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court, employers must provide reasonable accommodations for employees’ religious practice unless doing so imposes undue hardships on their operations. Title VII protects all Americans’ right to live and work in a manner consistent with their faith.”

Kluge taught at Brownsburg High School for four years. When the school district mandated that teachers call students by whatever pronouns and names they chose, Kluge requested a religious accommodation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to call all his students by their last names—like a coach—instead of referring to female students with male names and pronouns and vice versa. The school district granted Kluge’s request based on his religious beliefs, and Kluge successfully continued teaching under the religious accommodation for an entire school year. But in response to the grumblings of a few students and faculty, the school district revoked the religious accommodation and forced Kluge to resign, ending his teaching career.

The lawsuit, Kluge v. Brownsburg Community School Corporation, challenges the legality of the school district’s decision to revoke Kluge’s religious accommodation. Under Title VII, an employer must accommodate an employee’s religious practices unless the employer can prove undue hardship, which the school district failed to do. Religious exceptions in the workplace are protected under Title VII to guard employees from unjust religious discrimination.

In the petition filed with the 7th Circuit, ADF attorneys explain that the two judges in the panel majority should have waited for the Supreme Court to rule in Groff, in which the high court has the opportunity to ensure religious employees of all faiths are provided with meaningful religious accommodations in the workplace as required by federal law. The petition notes how the panel’s opinion “characterizes Mr. Kluge’s accommodation of using all students’ last names to avoid religiously objectionable language as disrespectful and unprofessional. Not so. Mr. Kluge respected all his students, treated them the same, and never discussed his religious beliefs. And Brownsburg didn’t question Mr. Kluge’s professionalism: no one monitored his classroom, the principal offered him a good reference if he left voluntarily, and the district was happy for Mr. Kluge to stay if he aban­doned his beliefs.”

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, parental rights, and the sanctity of life.

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