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‘Human Questions of Character and Community’

September 08, 2023

Prof. Tobias Wolff: “We can and should interrogate the values and the approach to community that people exhibit when they ask to have their personal religious beliefs elevated into special legal privileges at the expense of others in public institutions.”

At Bloomberg Law, Tobias Barrington Wolff, Jefferson Barnes Fordham Professor of Law and Deputy Dean for Equity & Inclusion at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, explores the role that community plays in cases such as a former teacher’s religious accommodation lawsuit over the use of transgender students’ preferred names.

“[T]his case reminds us that ordinary people can and should talk about values in response to requests for special religious exemptions, even if judges can’t,” writes Wolff in “Teacher’s Student Pronoun Case Puts Dogma Before Compassion.”

Wolff writes and teaches on the First Amendment with a particular focus on compelled speech doctrine. He was lead appellate counsel on behalf of the lesbian claimant in Elane Photography v. Willock, the New Mexico case involving a wedding photography company that refused to work with same-sex couples, which produced the first major appellate ruling on the First Amendment issues the Court would later take up in 303 Creative, for which Wolff filed a widely praised amicus curiae brief in support of the State of Colorado.

He has also been a frequent commentator on the intersection of the First Amendment and anti-discrimination laws.

From Bloomberg Law:

A former music and orchestra teacher’s case against his local school system will go through more litigation following a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on religious accommodation in the workplace.

Tobias Barrington Wolff, Jefferson B. Fordham Professor of Law Tobias Barrington Wolff, Jefferson B. Fordham Professor of LawJohn Kluge, who lost his Title VII suit against Brownsburg Community School Corp., will soon get another chance to make his argument under a more generous standard, thanks to the Supreme Court’s recent unanimous decision in Groff v. Dejoy.

That decision ratcheted up the standard employers must meet under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to justify denying an employee a special religious exemption to a generally applicable workplace policy.

There are some purely legal issues to discuss about what may happen next. But first, there are the more human questions of character and community.

Kluge’s argument centers on his insistence that he can’t use transgender students’ preferred names because his religious beliefs forbid him to “affirm as true ideas and concepts that he deems untrue and sinful” and not “promote” trans identity.

But how does it affirm or promote a belief system to address a person respectfully with the proper name they use? We’re not talking about a student engaging in obnoxious misbehavior, much less someone targeting or mocking a teacher for his faith. These are ordinary students, backed by their parents and care providers, who are simply saying things like, “My name is Sam; please call me that and, if it comes up, please use ‘he’ or ‘him’ to refer to me.”

Read Wolff’s full piece at Bloomberg Law.