Appeals court rules emotional harm to students and disruptions in learning are ‘undue hardships,’ justifying a refusal to accommodate a teacher’s religious beliefs

On a 2-1 vote, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected an Indiana high school music teacher’s claim that his dismissal for refusing to use transgender students’ preferred names and pronouns violated his religious liberty rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the school.

Plaintiff John Kluge objected on religious grounds to the requirement that he use transgender students’ names as found in the school’s official student database, including transgender students whose names had been changed in the databased upon a written request from parents and a doctor. Although Kluge initially reached an accommodation agreement with the school allowing him to use students’ last names exclusively, it quickly became clear that the arrangement was not working. According to the court:

The school produced copious evidence that, once these accommodations were in place, Dr. [Bret] Daghe [the school’s principal], teacher Craig Lee, and [assistant superintendent] Dr. [Kathryn] Jessup soon began to receive reports and complaints about the harms caused by Kluge’s last-names-only practice. In particular, Dr. Daghe received reports that transgender students in Kluge’s class felt insulted and disrespected by Kluge’s use of last names only. They also felt isolated and targeted. . . . Dr. Daghe also received reports that transgender students in Kluge’s class felt dehumanized by the last-names-only practice, and Dr. Daghe concluded that the practice was “detrimental to kids.”

As I discussed in an earlier post about Groff v. DeJoy – a Title VII case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court this week – employers are not required to accommodate an employee’s sincere religious beliefs if doing so would cause an “undue hardship” to the employer. Here, the appeals court determined that threshold is easily met in this case. The majority explains:

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. As Kluge himself conceded, schools have a legitimate interest in the mental health of their students. And as Dr. Daghe explained, his job as principal was to “make sure that education can move forward.” Education is, indeed, the business of every school. Thus, emotional harm to students and disruptions to the learning environment are objectively more than de minimis or slight burdens to schools.

In Groff, the Supreme Court is currently reconsidering whether the de minimis burden test is the correct threshold for establishing an undue hardship. BJC joined a brief with other religious liberty advocates to argue that de minimis is in fact the wrong standard and should be replaced with a requirement that employees demonstrate a “significant difficulty or expense” to deny an employee’s accommodation request. But, that wouldn’t mean the religious employee always prevails. As the brief emphasizes, their proposed standard “reasonably balances the interests of employers and employees.”

Here, the 7th Circuit noted the acute interest the employer school has in educating all students and treating each child with respect and dignity:

Unlike a for-profit corporation, Brownsburg’s mission of education for all students was mandated by the State’s constitution and legislature. In Indiana, public schools play a custodial and protective role in the compulsory education system, and public schools stand in the relation of parents and guardians to the students regarding all matters of discipline and conduct of students. After conducting its own research, the school reasonably deferred to the judgment of parents and healthcare providers regarding how to meet the specific needs of transgender students.

Title VII does not require an employer to retain an employee who harms the employer’s mission.

The Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents Kluge, has not announced whether it will appeal the ruling. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is expected to rule in Groff v. DeJoy before the end of June this year. Stay tuned.

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