Federal Court Rules Against Teacher Who Refused to Use Transgender Students’ Preferred Pronouns

On July 12, 2021, a federal judge in Indiana ruled against a former teacher who alleged that his employer, a local high school, discriminated against him when it requested his resignation after the teacher continuously refused to call transgender students by their chosen names and pronouns.

The Indiana case was precipitated by the school district’s adoption of a policy that allowed transgender students to change the first names and pronouns listed in their school records and required all staff to address students accordingly. In response to the new policy, an orchestra teacher wrote a letter to his principal stating that he could not follow the name policy due to his religious beliefs. In an attempt to accommodate the teacher, school administrators proposed that the teacher call all students by their last names only and without any gender-based titles, such as Miss or Mr. The accommodation resulted in an undue hardship to the school and evidence demonstrated that at least two students suffered because of the last-names only accommodation. Ultimately, the school could not continue the accommodation and requested the teacher’s resignation.

Following his resignation in May of 2018, the teacher asserted thirteen allegations against the school and several of its employees, including a claim that the school discriminated against him by refusing to accommodate his religious belief that prohibited him from using a transgender student’s preferred name and pronouns. The majority of those claims were dismissed, leaving only the teacher’s claims against the school for failure to accommodate and retaliation under Title VII for the teacher’s religious beliefs. The court ruled in favor of the school on both claims.

The court held that the teacher’s religious opposition to transgenderism was directly at odds with the school’s policy of respect for transgender students. Therefore, as a matter of law, the school could not accommodate the teacher’s religious beliefs. Quoting Shakespeare, the court wrote “[w]hat’s in a name? William Shakespeare suggested maybe not much, for ‘that which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.’ But a transgender individual may answer that question very differently, as being referred to by a name matching one’s identity can provide a great deal of support and affirmation.”

The Indiana decision is the most recent in a line of cases brought by teachers who claim they were unfairly disciplined for refusing to use the preferred names or pronouns of transgender students. In Massachusetts, DESE has published guidance for Massachusetts public schools on creating a safe and supportive school environment. On the issue of names and pronouns DESE advises that school personnel should use the student’s chosen name and pronouns appropriate to a student’s gender identity, regardless of the student’s assigned sex at birth.

This update is provided for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice.