Federal court rejects archdiocese’s religious exemption claim in Roncalli case

Ruling the religious exemption in Title VII should be narrowly construed so as to avoid stripping employees of all protections against discrimination, the Southern Indiana District Court denied a motion for judgment on the pleadings by the Archdiocese of Indianapolis in a lawsuit brought by a guidance counselor who was fired from her job at Roncalli High School for being in a same-sex marriage.

Judge Richard Young found the language and legislative history of Title VII in the 1964 Civil Rights Act along with the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, 140 S. Ct. 1731, 1754 (2020),  does not allow a religious institution to discriminate against an employee who is a member of the LGBTQ community.

“The exemption under Section 702 should not be read to swallow Title VII’s rules. It should be narrowly construed to avoid reducing Title VII’s expansive rights and protections,” Young wrote in an order issued Wednesday in Lynn Starkey v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis and Roncalli High School, Inc., 1:19-cv-03153.

Section 702 holds that Title VII does not apply to religious institutions in their hiring and firing of employees. The archdiocese argued in its motion for judgment on the pleadings that the religious exemption barred Starkey’s Title VII claims. In addition, the church asserted the First Amendment barred the plaintiff’s state and federal claims.

The district court rejected the religious exemption argument and found it is premature to conclude whether the First Amendment bars Starkey’s claims. However, the court agreed with the defendants that Title VII preempts the plaintiff’s retaliation claim under Title IX.

Young noted this case presents the “difficult questions” that arise when applying civil rights laws to religious institutions. He cited the need for “careful balancing of religious liberty and an employee’s right to be free from discrimination” and found the proper balance is to allow a religious employers to make hiring decisions without facing claims of religious discrimination but not to enable those employers to avoid other claims of discrimination.

“This provision does not exempt religious educational institutions from all claims of discrimination. The plain language of Title VII indicates the exception for religious institutions applies to one specific reason for an employment decision — one based upon religious preference,” Young wrote, citing Rayburn v. Gen. Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists, 772 F.2d 1164, 1166 (4th Cir. 1985).

Young also cited to a decision from within the jurisdiction of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. That case, Elbaz v. Congregation Beth Judea, Inc., 812 F. Supp. 802, 807 (N.D. Ill. 1992), found, “By its very terms [Section 702] applies only to discrimination on the basis of religion. The ban on discrimination in employment on account of race, national origin, or sex is still applicable to religious organizations.”

Also, he pointed to the actions of Congress. Two times the U.S. Senate rejected attempts to broaden the religious exemption.

“If Congress has intended to allow religious employers to avoid liability for discriminating on the basis of race, sex, or national origin, it could have done so,” Young wrote. “Instead, it adopted a limited exception, one intended to respect the rights or religious employers to employ those of the same faith but that stopped short of allowing religious employers to otherwise limit Title VII’s protections.”

Young was not persuaded by the cases the archdiocese cited. He found the cases did not address the instances presented in the Roncalli situation where religious employer’s hiring decision implicates another protected trait.

Instead, he maintained religion is a protected class under Title VII and religious employers are only allowed to make employment decisions based on that class alone.

“Defendants’ argument would allow a religious employer to convert any claim of discrimination on the basis of one of the protected classes under Title VII to a case of religious discrimination as long as there was a religious reason behind the employment decision,” Young wrote. “This would effectively strip employees of religious institutions of all Title VII protections if the employer’s religion clashed with the employee’s protected class status.”

Starkey is being represented by Kathleen DeLaney and Christopher Stake of DeLaney & DeLaney LLC in Indianapolis. The archdiocese and Roncalli High School are represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty along with Indianapolis attorneys Paul Carroll of Mercer Belanger P.C. in Indianapolis and John Mercer of Fitzwater Mercer.

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