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

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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.

“… (T)he 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., 1:19-cv-03153.

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 Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, 591 U.S. ___ (2020), 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, 19-2142, 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 will be updated.

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