7th Circuit says Archdiocese premature in seeking dismissal of Roncalli counselor case

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has dismissed an appeal in the lawsuit brought by former Roncalli High School counselor Lynn Starkey, saying the Archdiocese of Indianapolis’ turn to the appellate court was premature.

With the two-page order issued July 22 by the 7th Circuit, Starkey returns to the Southern Indiana District Court to litigate her hostile work environment and discrimination case against the Archdiocese and Roncalli. However, she will have to clear a new hurdle placed there by a July 9 ruling in a different case in which the Chicago-based court of appeals expanded the reach of the “ministerial exception.”

Starkey and her attorney, Kathleen DeLaney, managing partner of DeLaney & DeLaney LLC, applauded the 7th Circuit’s order and say they are continuing to prepare the case for a jury.

“We are pleased by the Seventh Circuit’s decision,” DeLaney said in a statement. “We have taken the position throughout the appellate proceedings that the appeal was premature and should never have been filed. We look forward to preparing this case for trial.”

The Archdiocese remained confident it will ultimately prevail.

In a statement, Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing the Archdiocese said, “The Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized that religious schools have a constitutional right to hire leaders who fully support the schools’ religious mission, and we are confident that the courts will ultimately protect this basic right. If the First Amendment means anything, it means the Catholic Church can ask Catholic educators to support Catholic teaching.”

Starkey sued the Archdiocese and Roncalli after her contract was not renewed because she is married to a woman. She alleged she had been subjected to a hostile work environment, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. She also filed claims for intentional interference with her contractual and employment relationship under Indiana law.

The Archdiocese responded by filing a motion for judgment on the pleadings, asking the district court to dismiss all of Starkey’s claims. After the district court denied the motion, letting all of Starkey’s claims stand except the retaliation claim arising under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, the defendants appealed to the 7th Circuit.

But the unanimous panel of Judges Frank Easterbrook, Michael Kanne and Diane Wood pointed out the Archdiocese and Roncalli were asking the appellate court to rule on a matter that they had just raised again in district court.

“If the (district court’s) order were conclusive, why have defendants renewed the same argument in the district court?” the judges asked.

A main point of contention in Lynn Starkey v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis and Roncalli High School, Inc., 1;19-cv-03153, is whether the longtime educator was functioning as a minister during her tenure at the school. The Archdiocese argues Starkey is covered by the ministerial exception because her duties included conveying Catholic principles and beliefs to the students, so the church has the right to terminate her employment without interference from the government.

The 7th Circuit’s order noted the district court is still grappling with that issue.

However, the en banc ruling from the appellate court in Sandor Demkovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, Calumet City, and the Archdiocese of Chicago, 19-2142, could impact Starkey’s case. The Archdiocese has filed a notice of supplemental authority with the district court, arguing Starkey’s case should be dismissed because Demkovich “confirms that hostile work environment claims like Starkey’s are barred by the ministerial exception.”

The district court has not ruled on the motion.

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