In 1977, the Supreme Court introduced a flawed standard for Title VII, the civil rights law that governs employee and employer relations. Since then, American employees have struggled to have their religious freedom respected by their employers. For some religious workers, the consequences of that flawed interpretation have been life-shattering.
In 2018, for example, Brownsburg High School music teacher John Kluge was forced to resign simply because he declined to express messages that violated his religious beliefs — and just this month, the Seventh Circuit ruled against him on the basis of the flawed 1977 standard.
That’s totally wrong. No American should be compelled to express messages that go against his or her beliefs as a condition of employment. And now, the Supreme Court has a chance to resolve this. On April 18, the high court heard Groff v. DeJoy, which presents an opportunity to restore meaningful protections for religious employees.
In the 1977 case Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, the Supreme Court indicated that Title VII doesn’t really mean what it says, and that employers only need to assume a slight burden to accommodate religion. Not all of the justices agreed. As Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote in his dissent, “one of this Nation’s pillars of strength — our hospitality to religious diversity — has been seriously eroded.”
For John Kluge, that erosion destroyed his dream career. Kluge was a respected AP music theory and orchestra teacher for the Brownsburg Community School Corporation. He had obtained two degrees and committed his life to teaching music to young people. During his tenure, students participated in extracurricular orchestra programs at high rates, students scored well on their AP exams and external orchestra ratings rose. By every objective standard, Kluge was an excellent teacher.
But in the end, none of that mattered. In 2017, the school told Kluge that he would have to address students by their preferred names and pronouns, even though that violated his religious conviction that gender is immutable and sex is a biological reality. Kluge proposed an accommodation: He would call all students by their last names, just like many coaches do.
Even this was not enough; toward the end of the 2017-2018 academic year, the school told Kluge that he could comply with the compelled speech, resign or be fired. The school never tried to argue that his work failed to meet expectations. In fact, administrators promised him a good reference if he resigned quietly.
Kluge chose to stand up for his rights and those of other religious employees. He filed a lawsuit in 2019. Then, on April 7, after more than 14 months of waiting, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit rejected his plea for justice. But now, should the Supreme Court take the chance in Groff v. DeJoy to correct the flawed standard sent in Hardison, it could also help Kluge’s case.
As Kluge pointed out through his Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys in an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in the Groff case, Christian employees are not the only group that has suffered. Muslims, Sikhs, Jewish people, and Rastafarians have all been denied reasonable accommodations of their religious beliefs.
The city of Philadelphia refused to even consider a female police officer’s request to wear a hijab covering her head and the back of her neck. The Federal Protective Service refused to allow a Sikh woman to carry a dulled ceremonial kirpan (a small knife), even though the blade was less dangerous than the scissors regularly used at her workplace. An Orthodox Jewish New York Police Department trainee was fired for abiding by his religious tenet not to cut his beard, even though the department accommodated other officers’ facial hair. A Rastafarian employee at a car repair shop asked for an exemption from a new policy requiring employees who interacted with customers to be clean-shaven; the exemption was refused and the employee was forced to work — often alone — in the colder, more dangerous lower bay, with fewer breaks than his co-workers.
In each of these cases, a federal court used the Title VII interpretation in Hardison as an excuse to disregard the religious worker’s rights.
It’s past time for the Supreme Court to rectify this flawed interpretation of Title VII. Should the court rule in favor of employee rights in Groff, it could be a victory for John Kluge as well — and all Americans who believe that no employer should be able to ignore the religious freedom of employees.