Fired Roncalli counselor Starkey appeal brings ‘ministerial exception’ back to 7th Circuit

Lynn Starkey, the long-time educator fired from Roncalli High School for being married to a woman, is appealing a decision from the Southern Indiana District Court that is potentially the first to extend the “ministerial exception” to cover school guidance counselors.

The district court’s ruling in Lynn Starkey v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Inc., and Roncalli High School, Inc., 1:19-cv-03153, held that Starkey’s duties throughout her 40-year tenure at Roncalli included conveying the principles of the Catholic faith. Consequently, the court determined the ministerial exception applied, so the government is prohibited from interfering with the school’s decision on her employment.

Starkey is now challenging the district court’s ruling, filing a notice of appeal Tuesday with the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

“As far as we know, this is the first time that a court anywhere in the United States has found that the ministerial exception applies to guidance counselors,” Starkey’s attorney, Kathleen DeLaney of DeLaney & DeLaney, said in a statement. “We disagree that guidance counselors are properly characterized as ministers. There are incredibly important constitutional and civil rights issues raised by this case, and we look forward to presenting our case to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.”

The decision from the district court came just weeks after the 7th Circuit found the “ministerial exception” blocked a lawsuit filed by an organist who claimed an Illinois Catholic church fired him for being in a same-sex marriage and being overweight.

At the time, DeLaney maintained the ruling in Demkovich v. St Andrew the Apostle Parish, et al., 19-2142, would not impact Starkey’s lawsuit.

“By contrast, Demkovich involved minister-on-minister hostile work environment harassment,” DeLaney told The Indiana Lawyer. “Demkovich says nothing about whether the ministerial exception should be applied to a high school guidance counselor.”

St. Andrew’s parish was represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The Becket law group, along with Mercer Belanger PC in Indianapolis, are also representing the Indianapolis Archdiocese and Roncalli High School.

Starkey worked at Roncalli High School for 40 years and served as a guidance counselor for 21. She was notified by the school and the Indianapolis Archdiocese in March 2019 that she would no longer be employed at Roncalli because she had allegedly breached her employment contract by being in a same-sex civil union.

In July 2019, Starkey sued the Archdiocese and Roncalli in federal court. She asserted multiple claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, including discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, retaliation and a hostile work environment. She also filed claims against the Archdiocese only for intentional interference with her contractual and employment relationships under Indiana law.

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