Former Roncalli teacher turns to advocacy after 7th Circuit loss

After three years of fighting in federal court for her job, Lynn Starkey is shifting her focus.

The former Roncalli High School teacher who was terminated after nearly 40 years because she is married to a woman had sued the school and the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, claiming she was discriminated against on the basis of her sexual orientation.

Last week, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Starkey’s firing on the grounds that the Catholic Church has the right under the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom to operate without interference from the government.

Following the decision, her attorney, Kathleen DeLaney of DeLaney & DeLaney LLC in Indianapolis, released a statement indicating Starkey will not be filing a petition for a rehearing en banc at the 7th Circuit or appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Lynn’s reasons for pursuing this lawsuit were to help prevent other employees of religious institutions from suffering wrongful discrimination,” the statement read. “Lynn is disappointed in the Court’s opinion and plans to continue to advocate that government funding not go to private schools that engage in discrimination.”

The Archdiocese’s legal team at Becket Law, based in Washington, D.C., described the 7th Circuit as affirming the freedom of religious schools to choose leaders who will adhere to the faith’s core religious principles.

“Catholic schools are tasked by the Church to uphold the dignity of every human person and teach the fullness of the Catholic faith,” Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, said in a statement. “The Seventh Circuit’s decision ensures that religious schools can remain faithful to their mission.”

Starkey filed her complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana in July 2019.

The case did survive the defendants’ attempt to squash the litigation through a motion for judgment on the pleadings.

In an October 2020 ruling, the district court concluded that Title VII’s religious exemption did not bar Starkey’s Title VII claims. Also, the court found she had alleged sufficient facts to support her Title VII claims of sexual orientation discrimination, retaliation and hostile work environment.

The Archdiocese appealed to the 7th Circuit. However, the appellate court issued a two-page dismissal in July 2021, finding the factual dispute still had to be resolved in the district court.

When the case returned to the Southern Indiana District Court, Judge Richard Young ruled Starkey was a minister, so the ministerial exception applied.

The 7th Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision in Lynn Starkey v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indiana, Inc. and Roncalli High School, Inc., 21-2524.

Starkey was one of three Catholic school teachers in Indianapolis who sued the Archdiocese after their contracts were not renewed in 2019 because they were in same-sex marriages. Joshua Payne-Elliott, a former teacher at Cathedral High School, filed a lawsuit in  Marion Superior Court and Shelly Fitzgerald, a colleague of Starkey’s at Roncalli, filed a lawsuit in the Southern Indiana District Court.

All three plaintiffs made claims of discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Archdiocese defended its actions by citing to the ministerial exception, asserting Starkey, Payne-Elliott and Fitzgerald all had ministerial duties and, therefore, their claims were barred by Title VII’s religious exemption.

As those cases were being litigated, the U.S. Supreme Court strengthened the ministerial exception in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, 591 U.S. ___ (2020).

In deciding Starkey’s case, the 7th Circuit cited to Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012), the same precedent that the Supreme Court highlighted in Our Lady.

Goodrich said the 7th Circuit was guided by the Supreme Court’s rulings on the ministerial exception.

“Religious groups have a constitutional right to hire individuals who believe in their faith’s ideals and are committed to their religious mission,” Goodrich said. “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.”

Although Starkey’s own court battle appears to have ended, Payne-Elliott and Fitzgerald are continuing.

The Indiana Supreme Court heard oral arguments in June in Payne-Elliott’s case. Again, the limits on civil government’s authority over religious matters was at the center of the dispute as the Archdiocese is trying to block the plaintiff’s request for discovery. A decision has not been issued.

Also, Fitzgerald’s case in the Southern Indiana District Court is awaiting a ruling from the Judge Young.

In November 2021, the Archdiocese filed a motion for summary judgment. Fitzgerald filed a response in January and the Archdiocese submitted a reply in February, but the court has not issued a ruling.

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