Court rules for Roncalli in lawsuit brought by fired counselor in same-sex marriage

Roncalli High School has won a victory in its legal battle with a former guidance counselor who raised discrimination claims after she was fired for being in a same-sex marriage. A federal judge ruled Wednesday that the counselor’s claims against the Indianapolis Catholic high school are barred by the First Amendment’s ministerial exception.

Judge Richard Young of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana denied Lynn Starkey’s motion for summary judgment on her claims alleging discrimination and a hostile work environment under Title VII and alleging tortious interference under Indiana law. The court had previously granted judgment on the pleadings to Roncalli on Starkey’s Title VII retaliation claim.

The court “concludes that Starkey qualified as a minister, and that the ministerial exception bars all of Starkey’s claims,” Young wrote in his Wednesday decision in Lynn Starkey v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Inc., and Roncalli High School, Inc.

Starkey served as Roncalli’s co-director of guidance until 2019, when the school did not renew her contract after learning that she was in a civil union with a woman. She sued, arguing her role was not that of a “minister” giving the school First Amendment protection.

While Starkey’s case was pending—as well as cases brought against the Indianapolis Archdiocese and Indianapolis Catholic schools by Shelly Fitzgerald and Joshua Payne Elliott—the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru,  which held that certain employees of religious schools cannot sue for employment discrimination.

Then this year, the 7th Circuit ruled in favor of the Chicago Archdiocese in Demkovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Parish in which a gay church organist sued after alleging he was fired as part of a hostile work environment.

Looking to those decisions, Young held that as a “minister” of the Catholic Church working for a Catholic school, Starkey could not pursue her claims for employment discrimination.

“To begin, religious instruction and formation are central to Roncalli’s philosophy and mission, and Starkey’s employment documents ‘specified in no uncertain terms’ that Roncalli expected her to perform a variety of religious duties and to help carry out the school’s mission,” Young wrote. “… The School Guidance Counselor Ministry Description designated a guidance counselor as a ‘minister of the faith’ and charged her with ‘foster[ing] the spiritual … growth’ of her students.”

Starkey also performed “important religious functions” at Roncalli, Young continued, noting her role on the school’s Administrative Council, described as the “lifeblood of decision-making.”

“Starkey downplays the religious nature of her role, and highlights her secular duties, such as scheduling students for classes, helping students with college applications, providing SAT and ACT test prep tools, administering AP exams, and offering career guidance,” the judge wrote. “… But this disregards that the school ‘clearly intended for [Starkey’s] role to be connected to the school’s [Catholic] mission,’ … and there is sufficient evidence that Starkey in fact performed many functions that would not be required of a guidance counselor at a secular school: She 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.

“… To be sure, the court does not mean to say that divergent understandings of the religious nature of an employee’s role should always be resolved in the religious employer’s favor. … but this case concerns the Co-Director of Guidance, and the record shows that the Co-Director of Guidance performed ‘vital religious duties’ at Roncalli.”

As for her state-law claims, Young held they are “also barred because those claims implicate the same concerns animating the ministerial exception’s application to Starkey’s Title VII claims.”

This story originally appeared at TheIndianaLawyer.com.

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28 thoughts on “Court rules for Roncalli in lawsuit brought by fired counselor in same-sex marriage

    1. It still remains very relevant for those who wish to follow God – which admittedly is fewer and fewer people.

    2. What an ignorant statement. I am Catholic and my Faith has gotten me and countless other people throughout the world through a very challenging last year and a half. I feel bad for people like you who think the way you do.

  1. Religion in the age of Trump seems to be all about punishing people unlike you and depriving them of their rights. The portions of the gospel that lead to compassion and love for one’s neighbor seem to have been erased. A strong argument for atheism, in my view.

    1. That is not religion in the age of Trump, that is just society in the modern era. Nonreligious people try to punish people not like them every day.

    2. The archdiocese of Indianapolis apparently feels that cracking down on the behavior of their lay employees is the appropriate response to their other … issues that have plagued them the last several years.

    1. I have nothing backwards.

      Secular people (and probably some religious) are trying to impose forced use of medication right now. They are banishing people from society who disagree with their medical choice. I’m taking no stance on vaccines with this comment, only pointing out that you are obviously incorrect and that imposing beliefs on others is a byproduct of our society, and perhaps just a part of the human condition, and not of being a religious person.

      You could say this about forcing people to spend tax dollars on things you prioritize, or driving certain types of cars that are better for the environment, or compelling someone to bake a cake for a wedding in which they don’t want to participate.

      You could argue that these are all for the common good, and they might be, but that’s the same argument anyone would make about anything you could possibly be talking about.

    2. You make a compelling case for anarchy, other than how it ends up if everyone does their own thing.

      Most don’t honestly care that drunk drivers have their rights infringed by society mandating penalties for their actions since they are a threat to society. Being unvaccinated isn’t all that different.

      A fair number of “Christian” religious folks have replaced their worship of Jesus Christ with worship of Donald Trump, since they apparently feel he will use the power of the US government to restore their place in society that they lost via their own actions and hypocrisy. He’s their “savior”.

      Most are blind to the reality that by doing so, by throwing in so heavily with politicians who use them for their unyielding loyalty, they have lost a generation of believers. Because while Republicans share a percentage of beliefs with Christians, it’s not even a majority and it conflicts in important ways.

      I mean, the parable of the Good Samaritan – direct teachings from Jesus himself – is crystal clear as to how we are to treat people at the border. Yet that’s ignored because … abortion is more important? We are OK with treating people poorly if they’re brown or black?

      Or, the earth itself that God created for us. We are literally trashing God’s creation every day … and that’s OK?

      People see that and they want no part of the Church or organized religion.

      It would be better for the Church to swear off politics and instead hew to its beliefs. Because the goal of the Church isn’t winning elections or getting judges into office, it’s sharing the gift of eternal salvation with the world. That’s what Christians are supposed to be doing.

    3. Paint with broad strokes much, William? Jeesh. If I were you I would just mind my own business. You want to be an atheist, great. We’ll see how that works out for you in the end.

  2. Using religion to justify discrimination has a long history and this seems like history repeating itself. Religion was a big factor in justifying and supporting slavery, so think about that when you think religion has a place in justifying other kinds of discrimination.

  3. In 2012 the US Supreme Court addressed this matter in a 9-0 opinion in favor of a Christian school. That is the precendent for the outcome in the current Roncalli case. A 9-0 court decision means: progressive Justices and conservative Justices agreed with each other. To quote the late Rodney King, “Can’t we all just get along?” Court case: Hosanna Tabor Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC.

  4. I cannot comprehend why so many vilify Christianity and moral conduct when no one is forcing it on others. This lady who filed is a good person I believe and was liked and respected in the school community but she violated a contract that she had agreed to follow. She is not being punished. I bet she could find another job at a public school and do the same thing she has been doing previously. That is a win-win. Why cannot she say oh well, I will go work somewhere else where my sexual preferences are not questioned? Would that not be the wiser choice? We live in an overly litigious society where people filing a suit against another party is the thing to do, and it ties up the courts with things that should be handled privately. I am not Catholic but applaud Roncalli for taking a stand on principle.

    1. I’d disagree and say that deciding to crack down on gay staff you’ve had for decades after decades of treating priests differently … isn’t a very principled stand.

      The current idea that everyone down to the janitors is a minister and can be forced to comply or be fired is legally allowed but shows a lack of grace on the Church’s part and a dereliction of their duty to try to minister and witness to all, IMO. And they shouldn’t be surprised when people see the hypocrisy and decide they’re done with organized religion.

      I attended Catholic schools. There were teachers everyone knew weren’t heterosexuals. It was fine. They weren’t ministers of the faith, they were teachers.

    2. Perfectly framed Joe F. Everyone else posting here only display their ignorance and/or hatred of Catholic teaching and of the right for any religious institution has to practice their faith. I think this is mentioned somewhere in the First Amendment and it seems like 9 out of 9 Supreme Court justices agree on this basic right.

    3. No one argues they have the right to teach whatever they wish. The issue becomes that they accept public tax dollars via vouchers. In Indiana, those vouchers come with no strings attached. Should they?

      I mean, there’s nothing saying that private schools HAVE to take vouchers.

  5. Please understand the important nuance here. It is not a violation of the ministerial exception to engage in homosexual acts, or to have a roommate, or go clubbing, or whatever. What is forbidden is to violate one of the 7 sacraments – here, the sacrament of marriage. She violated that by marrying another person of the same sex. For the same reason, teachers have been removed from their positions for marrying a second time without obtaining an annulment of the first marriage (you just don’t hear about those cases, because they have the good grace to simply get a position elsewhere and not make a federal case out of it). Here, we have a conflict between two important constitutional rights. The First Amendment freedom of religion wins. By the way, when you argue that funding should be withheld because of a way a religion handles its internal affairs, that is an example of violating the First Amendment, which states are forbidden to do by the 14th Amendment. [And, to correct an earlier post, it was evangelical Christians who were the driving force to abolish slavery, and were willing to die to end slavery.]

    1. The flaw of that argument is that the institution of marriage in the United States is not a religious-driven contract; it is a secular agreement between two people and the state. Firing someone for that reason, under the guise of protecting the sanctity of a religious sacrament, is pretty obviously discrimination to me. While I disagree with the ruling of the judge, stating that it passes muster because of the sacrament of marriage is disingenuous. The judge is basically ruling that a religious entity can use pretty much “any” reason to fire someone based on any arbitrary religious grounds.

    1. How insightful and clever, Robert F. We may assume your life is as pure as the driven snow?

      The woman violated the terms of a contract she signed and her contract was not renewed for having done so.
      Period.
      End of discussion.
      Got that?

      (BTW: I am not a Roman Catholic and have reservations about that body, being a conservative Lutheran and, thus, aware of the Roman Catholic church’s serious theological limitations Martin Luther brought to the fore over 500 years ago, which remain true today.)

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