Metro Weekly

Federal Appeals Court Upholds Firing of Catholic School Guidance Counselor

Appeals court finds "ministerial exception" allows religious institutions to hire and fire employees based on their role as "ministers" of the faith.

Roncalli High School — Photo: Facebook

A federal appeals court has upheld the dismissal of a lesbian guidance counselor’s discrimination lawsuit against a Catholic school, which reportedly fired her for entering into a marriage with another woman.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals announced on July 28 that it was dismissing Lynn Starkey’s appeal of a lower court ruling in favor of the Roncalli High School, a Catholic high school in Indianapolis. Starkey sued the school and the Archdiocese of Indianapolis in 2019, claiming she had been discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation, and retaliated against after she filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Starkey was one of two gay, married guidance counselors working at Roncalli. Her co-director of guidance, Shelly Fitzgerald, was suspended at the start of the 2018-2019 school year and later fired, prompting her to file her own lawsuit. Starkey continued working but claimed in her lawsuit that she had been subjected to harassment and discrimination, creating a “hostile work environment,” after her sexual orientation became known to her superiors. She claims she was unceremoniously fired at the end of that school year, despite working for the school for 40 years.

Fitzgerald and Starkey’s firings, as well as the Archdiocese’s demands that two other Catholic schools fire two gay men who had married each other, gained nationwide attention, with social conservatives praising the Archdiocese for the firings, while many rank-and-file Catholics of all political affiliations — including some current and former students and parents familiar with the LGBTQ employees — condemned the firings as closed-minded.

Criticism of the Church continued after the Archdiocese forced Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School to forfeit its “Catholic” identity and agreed to no longer be recognized as a Catholic institution after it refused to fire one of the gay male teachers, whose husband was fired from his job at nearby Cathedral High School.

The Archdiocese claimed, in response to Starkey’s lawsuit, that it had acted within its rights when it fired her, under something known as the “ministerial exception,” which exempts religiously-affiliated institutions from nondiscrimination laws based on the premise that they are allowed to make their own decisions regarding the propagation of the Catholic faith or the mission of the institution, as based on their religious beliefs, which are protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The Archdiocese claimed that, by accepting employment at Roncalli, Starkey — and her fellow LGBTQ Catholic school employees — had accepted a role as a “minister of the faith,” requiring them to abide by Catholic teaching, which condemns same-sex marriage, in their personal lives.

Last year, a federal judge in Indiana found in favor of the school and the Archdiocese, ruling that Starkey’s lawsuit should be dismissed because religious schools are entitled choose leaders and employees who uphold the faith’s core religious teachings. Starkey then appealed to the 7th Circuit, hoping to continue her lawsuit and have it decided in court based on its merits — something that she can no longer do, based on the circuit court’s ruling.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a conservative, anti-LGBTQ legal firm representing the Archdiocese, praised the court’s decision in a statement given to the Indianapolis Star.

“Religious groups have a constitutional right to hire individuals who believe in their faith’s ideals and are committed to their religious mission,” Luke Goodrich, senior counsel and vice president of Becket, said in the 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.”

Starkey’s lawyers, with Indianapolis-based law firm DeLaney & DeLaney LLC, told the Star that she was disappointed in the appeals court’s ruling, but plans to continue to advocate against sending government funding to private schools that engage in discrimination.

“For 40 years, Lynn Starkey was an award-winning educator at Roncalli High School, who was beloved by students, parents and faculty,” the firm said in a statement. “Roncalli’s principal repeatedly documented that Lynn was in the top 1% of educators with whom he’s ever worked. Lynn’s reason for pursuing this lawsuit was to help prevent other employees of religious institutions from suffering wrongful discrimination.”

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