INDIANAPOLIS — A teacher is fighting for his job after he says the district forced him to resign over its transgender student policy.
John Kluge, the former orchestra teacher at Brownsburg High School in Indiana, said the school district's requirement that teachers call transgender students by their preferred names, rather than those given at birth, goes against his religious beliefs. The requirement, Kluge said, violates his First Amendment rights.
"I’m being compelled to encourage students in what I believe is something that's a dangerous lifestyle," he said. "I’m fine to teach students with other beliefs, but the fact that teachers are being compelled to speak a certain way is the scary thing."
Advocates for the LGBTQ community say that using a person's preferred name is an issue of respect, not religion or politics.
"This is not a request for advocacy," said Sam Brinton, head of advocacy and government affairs for The Trevor Project, a national nonprofit focused on suicide prevention in LGBTQ youth. "This is a request for respect."
Officials with Brownsburg Community Schools declined to comment on the district's transgender student policies. A district representative said that Kluge submitted his resignation before the end of the school year and the administration accepted it.
Kluge, 28, said he only submitted a tentative letter of resignation because the district threatened to fire him with three weeks remaining in the school year. Instead, Kluge handed in a letter of resignation with instructions to not submit the letter until May 29, after the school year ended. On May 25, the last student day at Brownsburg Schools, Kluge said he asked to withdraw the letter.
Instead, Kluge said, he was locked out of the district's email system later that day. Other teachers then told him the district sent out a job posting for a high school orchestra teacher. He had been with the district for four years.
"They’re acting as if I have (resigned), even though I’m pleading, 'no,'" he said. "I'm not dead yet. I still want to work here."
The Indiana Family Institute, a conservative nonprofit that promotes religious liberty and opposes same-sex marriage and abortion, has started a letter writing campaign to support Kluge. The group is urging people to email every member of the Brownsburg school board and ask them to save Kluge's job.
"It appears that the real intolerance at Brownsburg High School lies in the hands of the administration against teachers who hold a sincere faith and a sacrificial love for their students," the form letter reads in part.
The disagreement between Kluge and the district is over a requirement that teachers call transgender students by their preferred name reflecting the gender with which they identify, rather than the name given to them at birth. Students cannot request this change until they have written consent from a parent and doctor, according to an internal document posted online by the Indiana Family Institute.
A representative for Brownsburg Schools confirmed the question-and-answer guidance had been distributed to employees. It is dated Jan. 3.
Once a student receives the required approvals, their name is changed in the district's online record keeping system. At that point, the document says teachers are to refer to students by that name.
Kluge said he was uncomfortable with this, feeling that using the preferred name implied agreement with the student's decision to identify as transgender. Kluge said that even though he doesn't agree with some of his students' decisions, he respects them.
"I really do care for all of my students," he said, "which is why I don’t want to be compelled to speak in such a way that I believe I’ll be encouraging them in something that’s dangerous."
Instead, Kluge said he reached an agreement with school administration that allowed him to call all students — those who identify as transgender and those who do not — by their last name. Kluge said it seemed like a fine compromise. He did not explain to students why he only used last names this past year.
"I wanted to present an environment where I wasn’t going to push one way or the other," he said.
A few months ago, Kluge said he was informed that he would not be allowed to use last names only starting next school year. He said the administration did not say why it was making this change.
Jim Bohrer, pastor at Hope Community Church, said Kluge is a well-liked teacher who always has shown respect to all his students. Bohrer's daughter is in Kluge's orchestra class.
"He treats them all the same," Bohrer said. "He cares deeply. This is not an issue of John excluding anyone. This is purely the administration trying to get rid of John for his convictions."
Bohrer said the name policy is not the only issue community members have with Brownsburg Schools treatment of transgender students. There are also concerns, he said, about transgender students using the bathroom other than the one corresponding to their sex at birth.
"Parents in church have shared concerns about safety issues," Bohrer said.
Under President Obama, the U.S. Department of Education issued guidance to schools that allowed transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice. That guidance was later rescinded under President Trump.
Connie Duvall withdrew her daughter from Brownsburg High School after the ninth-grader saw a student who was born female but identifies as male use the men's restroom. Duvall said she spoke to administrators about her concerns that male students could take advantage of the policy to use the women's restroom but felt she was not taken seriously.
"We totally did not feel our daughter was safe," Duvall said.
Her daughter now attends a private school.
Kluge said he is not ready to leave Brownsburg Schools. He plans to appeal to the school board to keep his job during its next meeting on June 11.
The Trevor Project runs a 24/7 suicide prevention hotline for LGBTQ youth. If you're a young person in crisis, call 866-488-7386.
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