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Teacher's Firing for Refusal to Use Transgender Names Upheld by Appellate Court

John Kluge resigned from his teaching position in the Brownsburg, Indiana, school district because he refused to call transgender students by their chosen first names. Before the 2017-18 school year, the district's administration learned several transgender students would be enrolling in the high school. The district updated its database to reflect the names, gender markers, and pronouns of these students, with the express permission of their respective parents and healthcare providers. The district then directed all employees to address the students using the updated information. Kluge said he objected to using the updated information because his religious beliefs precluded him from addressing transgender students by names inconsistent with their assigned gender identity at birth. He asked the school district to allow him to address all students by their last names as an accommodation, which the administration okayed.

The two transgender students in Kluge's classes perceived he implemented the last name policy because of them, and they felt targeted. Some students indicated that Kluge slipped occasionally and referred to cisgender students by their first names but did not do the same to their transgender classmates. One of the transgender students said Kluge misgendered him a few times. The school district told Kluge that the last name method was not working because it harmed the transgender students. Kluge still refused to use these students' first names because it "encourages" students down into "hell." The school district advised Kluge it would fire him unless he followed school policy. Kluge resigned.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the case after the district court dismissed it. According to the court, Kluge presented basic facts that reflected religious discrimination. However, the court concluded the school district demonstrated undue hardship in accommodating Kluge's religious beliefs. The transgender students' stigmatization and "tense, awkward and uncomfortable" classroom environment created an adverse impact experienced by cisgender and transgender students. The circuit court affirmed the dismissal of Kluge's claims.