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Seventh Circuit Reverses Course In The Case Of A Teacher Fired For Objecting, Based On His Christian Faith, To Using Transexual Student’s Preferred Pronoun

Our readers may recall my June 30 E-Alert covering several significant Supreme Court decisions issued that day, including the ruling in Groff v. DeJoy.  In Groff, the Court “clarified” (a better term might be “increased”) the burdens employers are required to endure before they may lawfully refuse a request for religious accommodations based on “undue hardship.”  Prior to this decision, I wrote in our June 1st Client Alert about the case of Kluge v. Brownsburg Community School Co.  Kluge involved a Christian high school teacher in Indiana, who was discharged for refusing, for religious reasons, to address a transsexual student by the student’s preferred pronoun. The trial court dismissed Kluge’s lawsuit, as did the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, initially. However, when the SCOTUS agreed to review the standard to be applied to religious accommodations, in Groff, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Seventh Circuit reconsidered its own decision.  I predicted then that the eventual decision in Groff might well impact the outcome in Kluge’s case.  Fast forward to July 28 where the Seventh Circuit reversed its April decision and overturned the trial court’s dismissal order, breathing new life into Kluge’s religious discrimination lawsuit. The case has now been sent back to the trial court to address Kluge’s claims, applying the higher accommodation burdens articulated in Groff.

The Kruge case is drawing national attention because it pits an employee’s religion against the rights of a transexual student. The school had previously convinced the trial court that its objective of providing students with a “safe and welcoming” environment, could not be accomplished without compelling teachers to use students’ preferred pronouns.  Therefore, the school argued that accommodating Kruge’s religious objection to being forced to use a pronoun that conflicted with a student’s gender at birth, posed an “undue hardship” that excused its refusal to accommodate his religion.  The outcome of this case is as yet undetermined, but under the standard in Groff this much is certain – if the school is going to continue to insist that it cannot accommodate Kruge’s religious beliefs, it will be hard pressed to put forth a solid – more than de minimus – argument as to why it poses an undue hardship. It is notable that before he was forced to resign Kruge had actually worked out a solution mutually agreeable to both the student and school … until a minority of students and faculty objected.

While the facts of this case are unique, all employers should take note of the fact that accommodating religion in the workplace has become considerably more demanding under the SCOTUS’ decision in Groff.  Religious accommodations are now more akin to accommodating disabilities under the ADA.  Employers must take heed of this subtle, but significant, change in their obligations to explore religious accommodations. Specifically, whereas prior to Groff employers could fairly easily declare “undue hardship” to refuse to accommodate an applicant or employee’s religion, they must now thoroughly explore alternative arrangements before a court may agree that they have satisfied their obligations to accommodate requests based on religion.   

For questions on these cases, or workplace accommodations based on religion, disability, or accommodations in general, call attorney James Sherman, at (952) 746-1700, or email him.

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