A federal appeals court Thursday sided with a Roman Catholic high school in Indianapolis against a former guidance counselor who sued after losing her job for entering a same-sex marriage.
The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago upheld the lower court’s decision in favor of Roncalli High School, part of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, finding that the “ministerial exception” covered the school’s decision not to renew the contract of longtime employee Lynn Starkey.
“We affirm the district court’s decision that Starkey was a minister under the First Amendment’s ministerial exception, as well as its ruling that the exception bars Starkey’s three federal Title VII claims for discrimination, retaliation, and hostile work environment,” said Judge Michael B. Brennan, a Trump appointee, in the 37-page opinion.
The ministerial exception allows churches and related organizations the right to determine which of its employees are “ministers” of the faith and thus are exempt from federal interference. To support its decision, the Seventh Circuit opinion cited two Supreme Court cases — Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, decided in 2020, and Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Evangelical School v. EEOC, decided in 2012.
Ms. Starkey, who joined the school in 1978 as an assistant music director, alleged that the school had engaged in unlawful sex discrimination in her lawsuit filed after leaving the school at the end of the 2018-19 academic year.
She argued that she was not a practicing Catholic and did not engage in religious ministry during her tenure at Roncalli, although she did attend monthly Masses at Roncalli and received Communion during those worship services.
In May 2018, Ms. Starkey signed a “School Guidance Counselor Ministry Contract” that included a clause stating that being in a relationship “contrary to a valid marriage as seen through the eyes of the Catholic Church” voids the employment agreement. The Catholic Church views marriage as being between a man and a woman.
School officials declined to renew her contract for the 2019-20 academic year after she told them in August 2018 that she was in a same-sex union but allowed her to finish her contract. She left afterward to work as a guidance counselor in a public school for higher pay.
In a statement released by her attorneys, Ms. Starkey said she “is disappointed in the Court’s opinion and plans to continue to advocate that government funding not go to private schools that engage in discrimination.”
Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the public-interest law firm representing the archdiocese, said the decision “ensures that religious schools can remain faithful to their mission.”
“Religious groups have a constitutional right to hire individuals who believe in their faith’s ideals and are committed to their religious mission,” said Mr. Goodrich, Becket’s vice president and senior counsel, in a statement. “Our justice system has consistently ruled that the government cannot intrude on a religious organization’s choice of who will pass on the faith to the next generation.”
Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita also cheered the decision, saying that “Hoosiers have the right to worship as they choose, and churches have the right to uphold the beliefs they consider sacred.”
“Folks have different viewpoints on same-sex marriage,” said Mr. Rokita, who led a 16-state amicus brief in support of the school and archdiocese. “But the fact remains that churches and religious institutions have the right to require their ministerial staff, including educators, to support and uphold their doctrinal teachings.”
A federal judge sided with the archdiocese in August, prompting Ms. Starkey to appeal.