Religious freedom has been one of America’s most cherished rights since the Founding. In both our personal lives and our professional careers, the right to exercise our religion is a hallmark of a free society.
But over the past few decades, employers have been slowly chipping away at protections for religious exercise in the workplace. Now, some companies are trying to tell their employees that they must set aside their religious beliefs as a condition of employment.
This is exactly what happened to one orchestra teacher in Indiana. Read on to learn more about his story.
Who is John Kluge?
John Kluge served as an orchestra teacher at Brownsburg High School in Indiana from 2014 to 2018. He taught music theory classes for both beginner and advanced students, conducted all three high school orchestras, assisted with middle school orchestra rehearsals, and occasionally taught piano lessons. John was highly regarded by students, parents, and grandparents during his time as Brownsburg.
In addition to being a music instructor, John is a Christian who is deeply devoted to his faith. He has served as an elder, a worship leader, and the head of youth ministries at his church. Because of this faith, John holds to the biblical idea that God created everyone either male or female, and that sex cannot be changed.
In early 2017, John’s school district—Brownsburg Community School Corporation—introduced policies regarding students who identified as the opposite sex. The district brought in a pair of staff members to speak at faculty meetings, and they informed teachers that referring “to a transgender student by their biological sex and not us[ing] the student’s preferred pronoun” would be treated as “harassment” and punished accordingly.
John wrote a letter to the school district explaining that he believed this policy would harm transgender-identifying students by denying the truth. He also believed it would force Christian students and faculty members to speak messages they did not agree with. Three teachers joined John in signing the letter, and the group scheduled a meeting with the Brownsburg High School principal at the end of the school year.
During the meeting, the three other teachers agreed to call students by new names that were inconsistent with their sex if the names were officially changed in the school’s database. John could not agree, because this would still force him to violate his religious beliefs and deny the truth to his students.
The school district ignored John’s concerns, and beginning in the 2017-18 school year, it allowed students to change their names in the database with permission from their parents and a note from a health-care provider.
The superintendent and principal told John that he could not use these students’ legal names, and when he objected, the superintendent claimed that his “beliefs aren’t what’s in the Bible.” John disagreed and cited verses to support his position, but the superintendent declared that John’s religious beliefs were “wrong.”
The superintendent ultimately gave John three options: comply with the policy, say that he was forced to resign, or be fired. John declined the first two options, and the superintendent suspended him with the intention of later firing him.
After a two-day suspension, John had another meeting with the superintendent and the school district’s human resources director. He suggested a religious accommodation in which he would refer to all students by only their last names—like a coach—and the superintendent agreed.
Under Title VII, employers are prohibited from discriminating against any employee because of his or her religion. If an employment requirement would force an employee to violate his or her beliefs, employers must make a “reasonable accommodation” for that employee unless an accommodation would create an “undue hardship.” By agreeing to John’s suggestion, the superintendent correctly followed this requirement.
For the first few months of the school year, John called all the students by their last names, and there were no evident problems. His students were performing well, and he did not receive any complaints. But in December 2017, the high school principal told John that students were “uncomfortable” in his class. The principal encouraged John to resign, but he declined.
The next month, the principal met with John again and said he had not been “direct enough” in the previous meeting. He told John “plainly that he really wanted to see [John] resign at the end of this school year” and offered to give him a good recommendation for future employment if he left voluntarily. John said he would not consider resigning until the district announced its new rules for students who identified as transgender.
In January 2018, the school district announced a new policy in which teachers had to call students by their preferred names and pronouns once they were changed in the school database. Starting the next school year, the new policy specifically revoked the accommodation allowing John to call all students by their last names. The policy did not establish a legal reason for terminating John’s religious accommodation, but rather explained that working at a public school “might mean following practices that are different than your beliefs.” Yet that is exactly what Congress intended Title VII to prevent.
John met with the principal and HR director to voice his concerns about the new policy, but they refused to even consider accommodating his religious beliefs. The HR director said that calling students by their last names was “just not what we do.” The school district ultimately forced John to resign at the end of the 2017-18 school year.
In June 2019, an ADF allied attorney filed a lawsuit against Brownsburg Community School Corporation on John’s behalf. ADF later took lead on the appeal.
A federal district court agreed that the school district policy conflicted with John’s religious beliefs. Because of this, the district had to prove it could not “provide a reasonable accommodation ‘without undue hardship on the conduct of its business.’”
The court ruled that the “last names only” accommodation resulted in undue hardship because teachers and students had complained about it and because a student who identifies as transgender could potentially file a lawsuit over the accommodation.
Even though other courts have ruled that grumblings by people who disagree with religious accommodations are not enough to establish an undue hardship, the district court seemingly ignored this fact in its ruling.
In August 2021, John appealed the lower court’s ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, and in April 2023, a split panel of judges ruled against him. Later that month, ADF attorneys filed a petition asking the full court to hear John’s case, and the court said it would wait for the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in a similar case, Groff v. DeJoy, before it decided whether to grant full-court review.
How does this case relate to Groff v. DeJoy?
In June 2023, the Supreme Court issued its ruling in the case of Gerald Groff, a former postal worker who asked not to work on Sundays because of his Christian beliefs about the Sabbath. As in John’s case, Groff had agreed to an accommodation that would enable him to keep his job and not violate his religious beliefs. The United States Postal Service said Groff could work extra shifts during the week instead of working on Sundays.
But after a couple of years, the USPS rescinded its agreement with Groff and started adding him to the schedule on Sundays. If he wanted to have the day off, he was forced to try to find a replacement himself. Groff ultimately resigned and filed a lawsuit against the USPS for violating Title VII’s protection of his free-exercise rights.
A federal district court ruled that the USPS had not violated Title VII because accommodating Groff’s request not to work on Sundays created an “undue hardship.” In doing so, it relied on a previous Supreme Court ruling, Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, that many lower courts took to mean employers do not have to make religious accommodations under Title VII if they result in more than a de minimus, or trivial, cost.
This reading of Hardison was inconsistent with the text and purpose of Title VII. If a “trivial” cost is enough to excuse employers from providing accommodations, Title VII does practically nothing and religious employers can easily be fired from their jobs.
ADF attorneys filed a friend-of-the-court brief on John’s behalf in Groff’s case because both he and Groff were seeking to restore Title VII’s protection of religious freedom in the workplace.
In June 2023, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously, clarifying that the Trans World Airlines decision did not establish a de minimis cost test. Instead, Title VII requires employers to grant a religious accommodation unless it would result in undue hardship or substantial additional costs in relation to the conduct of the employer’s business. Nor may employers deny an accommodation based on animosity to a particular religion, to religion in general, or to the notion of accommodating religious practice. As the Supreme Court explained, that would put Title VII at war with itself.
- May 2018: John Kluge was forced to resign from his position as an orchestra teacher at Brownsburg High School.
- June 2019: John filed a lawsuit against Brownsburg Community School Corporation
- July 2021: A federal district court in Indiana ruled in favor of the school district and ended the lawsuit.
- October 2021: John filed his opening brief asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit to reverse the lower court’s decision.
- January 2022: The 7th Circuit heard oral argument for the case.
- April 2023: A split 7th Circuit panel of judges ruled against John. ADF attorneys then filed a petition asking the full court to hear the case, and the court said it would wait for the Supreme Court’s decision in Groff before it decides whether to grant full-court review.
- June 2023: The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of stronger Title VII protection for religious employees.
- July 2023: In light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Groff, the 7th Circuit vacated its ruling and ordered the district court to reevaluate John’s case.
The bottom line
Employers cannot baselessly discriminate against their employees because of their religious beliefs.