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Federal court: No misgendering transgender students on religious grounds

7th Circuit judge issued ruling in Ind. case

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The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday that a public school teacher does not have the right to misgender a transgender student simply because they’re trans. The court found a religious accommodation could not justify the “harm to students and disruption to the learning environment.”

The 3-judge circuit court panel upheld a Jan. 8, 2020, ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana.

The case on behalf of John Kluge, who worked at Brownsburg High School in Brownsburg, Ind., as a music and orchestra teacher from 2014 until May 2018, was brought by the anti-LGBTQ legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, which self labels as a conservative Christian legal advocacy group, but the Southern Poverty Law Center first listed as an anti-LGBTQ hate group in 2016.

WISH in Indianapolis had reported that in court documents Brownsburg faculty during meetings in early 2017 began talking about trans students and “how teachers can encourage and support them.” After that, faculty and staff approached the high school’s principal for direction on how to address trans students.

In May 2017, Kluge and three other teachers presented the principal with a signed letter expressing religious objections to “transgenderism,” asking that faculty and staff not be required to refer to trans students by their preferred pronouns. In the letter, they also said they did not want trans students to be allowed to use the restrooms or locker rooms of their choice.

Later in that May, the Brownsburg Community School Corporation district adopted a policy that required all staff to refer to students by their chosen name listed in the school records. According to court documents, “students could change their first names in PowerSchool if they presented a letter from a parent and a letter from a healthcare professional regarding the need for a name change.”

The policy also allowed trans students to use restrooms of their choice and dress according to the gender with which they identified.

Kluge refused and was told by the high school’s principal that there were only three options: Follow the policy; resign; or be suspended, pending termination. He refused to follow the policy or resign, so he was suspended.

Kluge then compromised and presented district officials with two requested accommodations: First, that he be allowed to refer to all students by their last names only, “like a gym coach;” and second, that he not be responsible for handing out gender specific orchestra uniforms to students. He would treat the class like an “orchestra team” he proposed.

According to the court documents, He agreed that, if a student asked him why he was using last names only, he would not mention his religious objections to using trans students’ first names and would explain, “I’m using last names only because we’re a team, we’re an orchestra team, just like a sports coach says, hey, Smith, hey, Jones. We are one orchestra team working towards a common goal.”

School officials began to receive complaints from the Brownsburg High School Equality Alliance students and parents that Kluge was referring to them by their last names only, was a practice they found insulting and disrespectful.

In addition to the complaints of the school’s LGBTQ students, a student who was not in the Equality Alliance but was in Kluge’s orchestra class and who did not identify as LGBTQ, told school administrators that Kluge’s use of last names made him feel incredibly uncomfortable. The student described Kluge’s practice as very awkward because the student was fairly certain that all the students knew why Kluge had switched to using last names, and that it made the trans students in the orchestra class stand out. The student felt bad for the trans students, and shared with that other students felt this way as well.

The principal met with Kluge in December 2017 and told him using last names only was “creating tension in the students and faculty” and told him it might be good for him to resign at the end of the year.

On Jan. 22, 2018, administrators presented the faculty with a document titled “Transgender Questions.” The document provided policies and guidance for faculty in a question/answer format regarding issues relevant to trans students. Among the questions posed and answers given were the following:

Are we allowed to use the student’s last name only?

We have agreed to this for the 2017–2018 school year, but moving forward it is our expectation the student will be called by the first name listed in PowerSchool.

How do teachers break from their personal biases and beliefs so that we can best serve our students?

We know this is a difficult topic for some staff members, however, when you work in a public school, you sign up to follow the law and the policies/practices of that organization and that might mean following practices that are different than your beliefs

What feedback and information has been received from transgender students?

They appreciate teachers who are accepting and supporting of them. They feel dehumanized by teachers they perceive as not being accepting or who continue to use the wrong pronouns or names. Non-transgender students in classrooms with transgender students have stated
they feel uncomfortable in classrooms where teachers are not accepting. For example, teachers that call students by their last name, don’t use correct pronouns, don’t speak to the studentor acknowledge them, etc.

According to WISH, Kluge responded to the document by asking if he would still be allowed to call the students by their last names only.

In a February meeting, administrators told Kluge he would no longer be allowed to continue that practice, saying the “accommodation was not reasonable.” They went on to discuss whether Kluge would finish the school year or resign mid-year and offered to let him submit his resignation and not process it or tell anyone about it until the end of the school year. Kluge told the court the explanation of the resignation process led him to believe he could turn in a “conditional resignation” that he could later withdraw.

In March, Kluge was once again given the same options: follow the name policy and keep working for the district, resign or be terminated. He was told if he didn’t submit his resignation by May 1, the district would begin the termination process.

On April 30, Kluge emailed the human resources director with a formal resignation and asked that it not be shared with anyone until May 29. In the letter, he said he was resigning because of the district’s name policy and the loss of his accommodation.

By late May Kluge then attempted to withdraw his resignation and accused the district of discrimination based on his religious beliefs. At a June 11, 2018, school board meeting, he asked the board members to not to accept his resignation, and then there was a contentious public comments session as members of the community spoke both for and against his termination. The board approved his resignation.

Not long after he filed suit.

Magnus-Stinson in her ruling noted: Kluge v. Brownsburg Cmty. Sch. Corp., 432 F. Supp. 3d 823, 851 (S.D. Ind. 2020) (“The policy controlled the way in which Mr. Kluge addressed individual students during the course of his employment, but did not otherwise affect his ability to exercise his religion in the remainder of his life. Accordingly, to the extent that the Policy limited his religious exercise, the limitation was not so significant as to render the entire idea of free exercise of religion meaningless, because Mr. Kluge remained free to exercise his religious beliefs at other times and in other places.”)

Magnus-Stinson also concluded that a public school corporation “has an obligation to meet the needs of all of its students, not just a majority of students or the students that were unaware of or unbothered by Mr. Kluge’s practice of using last names only.”

Friday’s appellate court decision is likely to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Seventh Circuit ruling upholding U.S. District Court Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson’s ruling:

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U.S. Federal Courts

Club Q shooter sentenced to life in prison for federal hate crimes

Five people killed in 2022 mass shooting in Colo.

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Assistant U.S. Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. (Justice Department YouTube screenshot)

Anderson Lee Aldrich, 24, formerly of Colorado Springs, Colo., was sentenced to 55 concurrent life sentences to run consecutive to 190 years in prison after pleading guilty to 74 hate crimes and firearms charges related to the Nov. 19, 2022, mass shooting at Club Q, an LGBTQ establishment in Colorado Springs.  

According to the plea agreement, Aldrich admitted to murdering five people, injuring 19, and attempting to murder 26 more in a willful, deliberate, malicious, and premeditated attack at Club Q. According to the plea, Aldrich entered Club Q armed with a loaded, privately manufactured assault weapon, and began firing. Aldrich continued firing until subdued by patrons of the club. As part of the plea, Aldrich admitted that this attack was in part motivated because of the actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity of any person.

“Fueled by hate, the defendant targeted members of the LGBTQIA+ community at a place that represented belonging, safety, and acceptance — stealing five people from their loved ones, injuring 19 others, and striking fear across the country,” said Attorney General Merrick Garland. “Today’s sentencing makes clear that the Justice Department is committed to protecting the right of every person in this country to live free from the fear that they will be targeted by hate-fueled violence or discrimination based on who they are or who they love. I am grateful to every agent, prosecutor, and staff member across the Department — from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Colorado, to the Civil Rights Division, the ATF, and FBI — for their work on this case. The Justice Department will never stop working to defend the safety and civil rights of all people in our country.”

“The 2022 mass shooting at Club Q is one of the most violent crimes against the LGBTQIA+ community in history,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray. “The FBI and our partners have worked tirelessly towards this sentencing, but the true heroes are the patrons of the club who selflessly acted to subdue the defendant. This Pride Month and every month, the FBI stands with the survivors, victims, and families of homophobic violence and hate.”

“ATF will not rest until perpetrators like this defendant are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” said Steven Dettelbach, director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). “I hope today’s life sentence brings at least some peace to the victims and survivors of this senseless, horrific tragedy. That this sentence should come during Pride month reinforces how far we have left to go before all communities, including all LGBTQIA+ communities, are safe here. It also shows how far ATF and all our partners will go to ensure hatred does not win.”

“The defendant’s mass shooting and heinous targeting of Club Q is one of the most devastating assaults on the LGBTQIA+ community in our nation’s history. This sentence cannot reclaim the lives lost or undo the harms inflicted. But we hope that it provides the survivors, the victims’ families, and their communities a small measure of justice,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “Our message today should be loud and clear. No one should have to fear for their life or their safety because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. The Justice Department will vigorously investigate and prosecute those who perpetrate hate-fueled, bias-driven attacks.”

“Hate has no place in our country and no place in Colorado” said Acting U.S. Attorney Matt Kirsch for the District of Colorado. “I hope that today’s sentence demonstrates to the victims and those connected to this horrific event that we do not tolerate these heinous acts of violence.”

The FBI Denver Field Office, Colorado Springs Police Department, and ATF investigated the case.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Alison Connaughty and Bryan Fields for the District of Colorado and, Maura White of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division prosecuted the case.

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U.S. Federal Courts

Title IX protections blocked in six more states

Ruling applies to Va.

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BY McKENNA HORSLEY | A federal judge has blocked new Title IX rules, including those aimed at protecting LGBTQ students from discrimination in K-12 schools, and sided with Republican attorneys general in several states — including Kentucky. 

Chief Judge Danny Reeves of the U.S. District Court in Eastern Kentucky on Monday issued a ruling siding with Republican Attorney General Russell Coleman and his counterparts in five other states. The ruling prevents the U.S. Department of Education from “implementing, enacting, enforcing, or taking any action to enforce the Final Rule, Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Sex in Education Programs or Activities Receiving Federal Financial Assistance,” which was set to begin Aug. 1. 

Kentucky Attorney General Russell Coleman (Kentucky Lantern photo by Mathew Mueller)

Coleman and the GOP attorneys general filed the lawsuit in April. At the time, they argued the Department of Education “used rulemaking power to convert a law designed to equalize opportunities for both sexes into a far broader regime of its own making” with the new Title IX regulations. 

Reeves limited the injunction to the plaintiff states of Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Virginia and West Virginia.

The Biden administration introduced the rules to “build on the legacy of Title IX by clarifying that all our nation’s students can access schools that are safe, welcoming, and respect their rights,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement. The rules also would have rolled back Trump administration changes that narrowly defined sexual harassment and directed schools to conduct live hearings, allowing those who were accused of sexual harassment or assault to cross-examine their accusers.

President Joe Biden with U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. (Official White House photo by Adam Schultz)

In their complaint, the state attorneys general said that under the Biden rule, “Men who identify as women will, among other things, have the right to compete within programs and activities that Congress made available to women so they can fairly and fully pursue academic and athletic excellence — turning Title IX’s protections on their head … And anyone who expresses disagreement with this new status quo risks Title IX discipline for prohibited harassment.” 

Established in 1972, Title IX was created to prevent “discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance,” according to the Department of Education.

Reeves wrote in his opinion that “the Department of Education seeks to derail deeply rooted law” created by the implementation of Title IX. 

“At bottom, the department would turn Title IX on its head by redefining ‘sex’ to include ‘gender identity.’ But ‘sex’ and ‘gender identity’ do not mean the same thing,” he wrote. “The department’s interpretation conflicts with the plain language of Title IX and therefore exceeds its authority to promulgate regulations under that statute.” 

In a press release, Coleman’s office said Monday that schools that would fail to comply with the new rules would risk losing federal funding. Citing the Department of Education, the office said Kentucky’s public and private schools received a total of $1.1 billion in federal funding last year.

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“As a parent and as attorney general, I joined this effort to protect our women and girls from harm. Today’s ruling recognized the 50-plus years of educational opportunities Title IX has created for students and athletes,” Coleman said in the press release. “We’re grateful for the court’s ruling, and we will continue to fight the Biden administration’s attempts to rip away protections to advance its political agenda.”

A spokesperson for the department said it was reviewing the ruling.

“Title IX guarantees that no person experience sex discrimination in a federally-funded educational environment,” the spokesperson added. “The department crafted the final Title IX regulations following a rigorous process to realize the Title IX statutory guarantee. The department stands by the final Title IX regulations released in April 2024, and we will continue to fight for every student.”

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McKenna Horsley

McKenna Horsley covers state politics for the Kentucky Lantern. She previously worked for newspapers in Huntington, W.Va., and Frankfort, Ky. She is from northeastern Kentucky.

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The preceding story was previously published by the Kentucky Lantern and is republished with permission.

The Kentucky Lantern is an independent, nonpartisan, free news service based in Frankfort a short walk from the Capitol, but all of Kentucky is our beat.

We focus on how decisions made in the marble halls of power ripple through the lives of Kentuckians. We bring attention to injustices and hold institutions and officials accountable. We tell the stories of Kentuckians who are making a difference and shine a light on what’s working. Our journalism is aimed at building a fairer, healthier Kentucky for all. 

Kentucky Lantern is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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U.S. Federal Courts

Federal court blocks Title IX transgender protections

Ruling applies to Idaho, La., Miss., and Mont.

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BY GREG LAROSE | A federal judge has temporarily halted enforcement of new rules from the Biden administration that would prevent discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty of Louisiana issued a temporary injunction Thursday that blocks updated Title IX policy from taking effect Aug. 1 in Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Montana. 

In April, the U.S. Department of Education announced it would expand Title IX to protect LGBTQ students, and the four aforementioned states challenged the policy in federal court.

Doughty said in his order that Title IX, the 52-year-old civil rights law that prohibits sex-based discrimination, only applies to biological women. The judge also called out the Biden administration for overstepping its authority. 

“This case demonstrates the abuse of power by executive federal agencies in the rule-making process,” Doughty wrote. “The separation of powers and system of checks and balances exist in this country for a reason.”

The order from Doughty, a federal court appointee of President Donald Trump, keeps the updated Title IX regulations from taking effect until the court case is resolved or a higher court throws out the order.

Opponents of the Title IX rule changes have said conflating gender identity with sex would undermine protections in federal law and ultimately harm biological women. Gender identity refers to the gender an individual identifies as, which might differ from the sex they were assigned at birth.

Louisiana Attorney General Liz Murrill, who filed the suit in the state’s Western District federal court, had called the new regulations “dangerous and unlawful.” In a statement Thursday evening, she said the rules would have placed an unfair burden on every school, college and university in the country.

“This (is) a victory for women and girls,” Murrill said in the statement. “When Joe Biden forced his illegal and radical gender ideology on America, Louisiana said NO! Along with Idaho, Mississippi, and Montana, states are fighting back in defense of the law, the safety and prosperity of women and girls, and basic American values.”

Title IX is considered a landmark policy that provided for equal access for women in educational settings and has been applied to academic and athletic pursuits. 

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Doughty’s order comes a day after a similar development in Texas, where Judge Reed O’Connor, an appointee of President George W. Bush, declared that the Biden administration exceeded its authority, the Texas Tribune reported. 

Texas filed its own lawsuit against the federal government to block enforcement of the new rules, which Gov. Greg Abbott had instructed schools to ignore. Texas is one of several states to approve laws that prohibit transgender student-athletes from participating on sports teams that align with their gender identity.

Attorney generals in 26 states have originated or joined federal lawsuits to stop the new Title IX regulations from taking effect. 

Earlier Thursday, Republicans in Congress moved ahead with their effort to undo the revised Biden Title IX policy. Nearly 70 GOP lawmakers have signed onto legislation to reverse the education department’s final rule through the Congressional Review Act, which Congress can use to overturn certain federal agency actions.

Biden is expected to veto the legislation if it advances to his desk.

“Title IX has paved the way for our girls to access new opportunities in education, scholarships and athletics. Unfortunately, (President) Joe Biden is destroying all that progress,” U.S. Rep. Mary Miller (R-Ill.), author of the legislation, said Thursday.

States Newsroom Reporter Shauneen Miranda in D.C. contributed to this report.

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Greg LaRose

Greg LaRose has covered news for more than 30 years in Louisiana. Before coming to the Louisiana Illuminator, he was the chief investigative reporter for WDSU-TV in New Orleans. He previously led the government and politics team for The Times-Picayune | NOLA.com, and was editor in chief at New Orleans CityBusiness. Greg’s other career stops include Tiger Rag, South Baton Rouge Journal, the Covington News Banner, Louisiana Radio Network and multiple radio stations.

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The preceding article was previously published by the Louisiana Illuminator and is republished with permission.

The Louisiana Illuminator is an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization with a mission to cast light on how decisions in Baton Rouge are made and how they affect the lives of everyday Louisianians. Our in-depth investigations and news stories, news briefs and commentary help residents make sense of how state policies help or hurt them and their neighbors statewide.

We’re part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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