Federal Court Resolves Clash Between Accommodating A Worker’s Religious Beliefs & Transgender Rights
Having practiced employment discrimination law for more than two decades, our employment law lawyers in Marion County, Florida have learned that some employment discrimination cases involve a clash of legal rights that occurs in the political sphere. Under such circumstances, courts interpreting employment discrimination law must determine which legal right will take precedence under the specific circumstances of the case. When elevating one legal right over another in the context of an employment discrimination case, courts must also determine how far one legal right may encroach on another legal right. In this article, our employment law attorneys in Marion County, Florida explain how the decision in Kluge v. Brownsburg Community School Corp., 64 F.4th 861 (7th Cir. 2023) is illustrative of the clash of legal rights that sometimes occurs in the context of an employment discrimination case.
Right To Religious Accommodation
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of their religion. As used in Title VII, “religion” includes all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief. Title VII also requires employers to accommodate the sincerely held religious beliefs of employees when they conflict with employment requirements and where providing an accommodation would not result in an undue hardship. When an employer fails or refuses to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs that conflict with employment requirements, the employer has violated Title VII’s prohibition against religious discrimination unless the employer proves that it was unable to accommodate the employee’s religious beliefs without undue hardship on the operation of its business. In other words, if an employer proves that accommodating an employee’s religious beliefs would impose an undue burden on the conduct of its business, then the employer is not required by Title VII to accommodate the employee’s religious beliefs.
Employee Requests Religious Accommodation
In Kluge, a man named Kluge brought a Title VII religious discrimination claim against his former employer, Brownsburg Community School Corporation (“Brownsburg”). Kluge alleges that Brownsburg violated Title VII by failing to accommodate his religious beliefs.
In 2014, Kluge was hired by Brownsburg to serve as the sole music and orchestra teacher at Brownsburg High School. Kluge alleges that he “is a professing evangelical Christian who strives to live by his faith on a daily basis.” During the summer of 2017, Brownsburg began to allow transgender students and students experiencing dysphoria to use the restroom of their choice and to change their names and genders in the Brownsburg database. Name changes in the database required a letter from the student’s parent and a letter from a healthcare professional. Brownsburg employees, including Kluge, were instructed to refer to students using the names and genders listed in the database.
In July 2017, Kluge informed Brownsburg’s Superintendent that the requirement that he use the students’ names as listed in the database conflicted with his religious beliefs against affirming gender dysphoria. Kluge objected on religious grounds to using the first names of transgender students to the extent that he deemed those names not consistent with their recorded sex at birth. The Superintendent allegedly told Kluge that he could either “use the transgender names, say he was forced to resign, or be terminated without pay.” Because Kluge refused to use the names listed in the database, the Superintendent then initiated an administrative leave of absence and the Principal of Brownsburg“ issued Kluge an ultimatum . . . mandating the use of transgender preferred names and giving Kluge three days to decide if he would comply.”
Religious Accommodation Withdrawn
Kluge then requested “an accommodation for his religious beliefs,” and proposed the solution of “addressing all students by their last names only, similar to a sports coach.” Brownsburg’s Human Resources Director agreed in writing to allow Kluge to address all students by their last names and assigned someone to distribute gender-specific uniforms to students so that Kluge would not have to.
Kluge alleges that in December 2017 the Principal informed him that the last-names-only arrangement had created “tension” and that Kluge should resign by the end of the school year. That same month, according to Kluge, the Human Resources Director informed Kluge that the last-names-only arrangement was being withdrawn because “students were offended at the use of their last names.” Ultimately, Brownsburg forced Kluge to either comply with the policy requiring teachers to use the preferred names and genders of transgender students, resign, or be terminated. In April 2018, Kluge claims that he submitted a “conditional resignation,” and that Brownsburg accepted his resignation as if it had been submitted unconditionally. In May 2018, Brownsburg locked Kluge out all Brownsburg buildings and posted his job as vacant.
Religious Accommodation Imposes Undue Hardship
The trial court found that Kluge had presented sufficient evidence to establish that his refusal to use the preferred names and pronouns of transgender students was based on sincerely held religious beliefs. The trial court also found that Kluge’s religious beliefs conflicted with the employment requirement that he use the preferred names of transgender students. The trial court, however, found that Brownsburg was unable to accommodate Kluge’s religious beliefs without imposing an undue hardship on the school’s conduct of its business of educating all students that entered its doors. Consequently, the trial court concluded that Brownsburg was not required by Title VII to accommodate Kluge’s religious beliefs and dismissed his religious discrimination claim.
On appeal before the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, the threshold issue was whether accommodating Kluge’s religious beliefs by allowing him to address students by their last names only imposed an undue hardship on Brownsburg. Brownsburg argued that Kluge’s last-names-only practice imposed an undue hardship by frustrating its “efforts to educate all students because the accommodation negatively impacted students and the learning environment for transgender students and other students as well.” The Seventh Circuit agreed with Brownsburg and ruled that Kluge’s requested accommodation caused an undue hardship on the conduct of its business of providing education for all students.
Transgender Students Felt “Dehumanized”
In support of its conclusion, the Seventh Circuit pointed to “copious evidence” that once Brownsburg accommodated Kluge’s religious beliefs by allowing him to address all students by their last names only, the Principal “began to receive reports and complaints about the harms caused by Kluge’s last-names-only practice.” The Principal “received reports that transgender students in Kluge’s class felt insulted and disrespected by Kluge’s use of last names only.” The Principal also “received reports that transgender students in Kluge’s class felt dehumanized by the last-names-only practice. Thus, the Principal concluded that Kluge’s last-names-only practice was “detrimental to kids” and “disrupted the learning environment.”
The Seventh Circuit also pointed out that no “other reasonable accommodation was available.” Kluge was the school’s only music teacher and, thus, students could not be transferred to another classroom. The court of appeals further noted that “Kluge himself has never suggested any other viable accommodation.” Based on this evidence, the appellate court ruled that “because no reasonable jury could conclude that a practice that emotionally harms students and disrupts the learning environment is only a slight burden to a school, and because no other accommodations were available,” Brownsburg had proven that accommodating Kluge’s religious beliefs imposed an undue hardship. Thus, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of Kluge’s religious discrimination claim.
Marion County, FL Employment Lawyers
Based in Ocala, Florida, and representing workers throughout Florida, our employment attorneys in Marion County, Florida have fought for the rights of employment discrimination victims for more than twenty years. If you have been discriminated against at work or have questions about your rights under federal employment discrimination law, please contact our office for a free consultation with our employment lawyers in Marion County, Florida. Our employee rights law firm takes employment discrimination cases on a contingency fee basis. This means that there are no attorney’s fees incurred unless there is a recovery and our attorney’s fees come solely from the monetary award that you recover.