Catholic high school can fire staff in same-sex marriages, court rules

Roncalli High School of Indianapolis, Indiana.
Roncalli High School of Indianapolis, Indiana. | Facebook/Roncalli High School

A federal court has ruled against a counselor who was fired from a Catholic high school in Indiana because she was in a same-sex marriage, citing the legal standard of ministerial exception.

Lynn Starkey had sued the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis and Roncalli High School for firing her for being in a marital relationship that conflicted with Church teaching.

United States District Judge Richard Young ruled Wednesday that the Catholic institution was free to fire Starkey on the basis of its religious standards for employment and that a secular court had no place to interfere in the decision.

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“When the state interferes with these types of employment decisions, it violates both the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment,” wrote Young.

“The ministerial exception is not limited to claims of religious discrimination; it bars all claims of discrimination under Title VII, including discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.”

The court went on to note that Starkey’s “work in helping shape Roncalli's educational and spiritual environment weigh heavily in favor of applying the ministerial exception.”

“[Starkey] helped plan all-school liturgies, she delivered the morning prayer on at least a few occasions, she worked with other Administrative Council members to identify ways in which Roncalli can differentiate itself from the local public schools, and she participated in discussion groups about books aimed at enhancing faith formation,” continued Young.

“Moreover, that Starkey characterizes her work as a guidance counselor in purely secular terms does not change the result because it would be inappropriate for this court to draw a distinction between secular and religious guidance offered by a guidance counselor at a Catholic school.”

Becket, a law firm that handles religious liberty cases and helped to represent the archdiocese during the litigation, celebrated the ruling in a statement released Wednesday.

“Today’s ruling is common sense: religious groups have a constitutional right to hire people who agree with their religious beliefs and practices,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, as quoted in the statement.

“At all levels of the judiciary, courts have made clear that the government has no place interfering with a religious organization’s decision about who can pass on the faith to the next generation.” 

Kathleen DeLaney, the attorney representing Starkey, expressed disappointment at the ruling and is considering the possibility of filing an appeal, for which she has 30 days to decide.

“We’re disappointed with the court's ruling and concerned about its potential impact, not just on Lynn Starkey, but on all educators in religious schools,” said DeLaney, as quoted by the Indianapolis Star.

Starkey and another Roncalli guidance counselor named Shelley Fitzgerald were both terminated from their positions at the high school for being in same-sex marriages.

Regarding the Fitzgerald case, which led to a lawsuit against the archdiocese, the result of which is still pending, Roncalli posted a statement on its Facebook page in 2018 explaining that its staff must adhere to Catholic teaching.

"As role models for students, the personal conduct of every teacher, guidance counselor and administrator and staff member, both at school and away from school, must convey and be supportive of the teachings of the Catholic Church," stated the school in 2018.

"These teachings include, but are not limited to: honoring the dignity of each human life from conception to natural death, care for God's creation, and the belief that all persons are called to respect human sexuality and its expression in the sacrament of marriage between a man and a woman as a sign of God's love and fidelity to His Church."

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