Monday, April 10, 2023

7th Circuit decides the issue of religious rights vs. trans rights … and trans rights won

I really wanted to move on this week from writing about transgender rights. But then the 7th Circuit had to go and decide that a student's right to be called by his or her preferred gender trumps a teacher's religious accommodation request not to do so.

The case is Kluge v. Brownsburg Community School Corp. John Kluge worked as a music teacher at the Brownsburg Community School Corp. In 2017, the school adopted a new policy that required teachers to use students' chosen names and pronouns. Kluge refused to abide, asserting that it violated his Christian beliefs. The school initially granted an accommodation that permitted Kluge to refer to all students by their last names. It withdrew the accommodation, however, after both trans and cisgender students became angered after deciphering Kluge's surname use. Kluge resigned and sued for religious discrimination and retaliation under Title VII.

The 7th Circuit agreed with Brownsburg that Kluge's accommodation imposed an undue hardship because his refusal to use students' chosen names and preferred pronouns made students feel "targeted and uncomfortable" and hindered their ability to learn.

In sum, the school produced uncontradicted evidence that Kluge's last-names-only practice stigmatized the transgender students and caused them demonstrable emotional harm as reported to the administration.… Kluge was told that students reported feeling disrespected, targeted, isolated, and dehumanized. As Kluge conceded, the school has a legitimate interest in the mental health of its students, and an accommodation is not reasonable when it's detrimental to kids. Kluge's practice also adversely affected the classroom environment which both transgender and nontransgender students considered tense, awkward and uncomfortable.… Kluge’s practice also disrupted other classrooms when students brought their concerns and discussions about the practice to other teachers in other classrooms. It conflicted with the school's carefully constructed Name Policy that sought to address the special challenges that transgender students face in school, and balanced those concerns with the preferences of the students' parents and healthcare providers. Allowing Kluge to continue in the practice thus placed an undue hardship on Brownsburg's mission to educate all of its students, and its desire to treat all students with respect and affirmation for their identity in the service of that mission.

This ruling is an important one for trans rights, especially as some try to use religion to impede the rights of transgender and gender noncomforming individuals. The same reasoning that the 7th Circuit used regarding the rights of trans students in Kluge would also apply to trans employees in your workplace. The undue hardship standard for religious accommodations under Title VII is not a steep one — it merely requires anything more than a de minimus burden. As Kluge makes clear, the emotional harm caused by misgendering more than meets this undue hardship standard. 

Or, to state it differently, when balancing rights here, the rights of transgender and gender nonconforming individuals to use to names and pronouns of their choosing trumps the rights of others not to honor that wish in the name of religion.