Brownsburg High School initially offered an accommodation to a music teacher who raised a religious objection to the use of transgender students’ preferred names and pronouns. When the accommodation, using last names only, did not solve the issue, the school told the teacher he could comply with the policy, resign, or be fired. He resigned and sued for religious discrimination.
Employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations for religious needs
According to the Associated Press, in 2017, Brownsburg High School began keeping a database on students that included their names and genders. The school agreed to update the name and/or gender in the database upon receipt of letters of request from the student’s parent and doctor. Therefore, the database listed whatever name and gender the student’s parent and doctor requested. The listed gender of the student could be different from the gender they were assigned at birth.
Teachers were instructed to call the students by the name and gender listed in the school’s database. On the first day of school, the music teacher told the school’s principal that he had a religious objection to calling transgender students by their preferred names and using their preferred pronouns.
The principal worked with the teacher to find a reasonable accommodation. They agreed that the teacher could call transgender students by their last names only and that he wouldn’t be called upon to distribute gender-specific orchestra clothing.
Unfortunately, that accommodation didn’t work out. At least two transgender students complained that they felt singled out by the teacher’s refusal to use their first names. Others, including teachers and counselors, said that the policy made the classroom uncomfortable.
What is required when an accommodation doesn’t work?
In this case, a federal trial court ruled that Brownsburg High School had met its duty to provide a reasonable accommodation. When it became clear that that accommodation wasn’t solving the problem, the high school could have tried to craft another accommodation. However, it was not required to do so.
This is because accommodations are only considered reasonable to the extent that they do not pose an “undue burden” on the employer. An undue burden is defined as “an unreasonable trouble or expense.” In this case, the court said that accommodating the music teacher’s religious beliefs posed an undue burden on the school.
The Seventh Circuit agreed.
“Brownsburg has demonstrated as a matter of law that the requested accommodation worked an undue burden on the school’s educational mission by harming transgender students and negatively impacting the learning environment for transgender students, for other students in [the teacher’s] classes and in the school generally, and for faculty,” reads its opinion.
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