Indiana AG sides with Indianapolis Archdiocese in discrimination appeal

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Wading into the fight between a former school guidance counselor and the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita is asserting the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals is prohibited from “interfering” in church decisions by the legal doctrine of the ministerial exception.

Rokita and 15 other attorneys general have filed an amicus brief in the appeal brought by Lynn Starkey, a nearly 40-year employee of Roncalli High School who was fired after the Archdiocese learned she was married to a woman. The 13-page brief argues the state cannot interfere with the Archdiocese’s decisions about church governance as well as matters of faith and doctrine.

“At the core of the ministerial exception is its respect for the autonomy of religious institutions to determine for themselves who will lead the faithful without government entanglement in religious affairs, and this case demonstrates that principle,” the brief states.

Joining the amicus brief are Republican attorneys general from Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah and West Virginia.

Starkey challenged her firing with a lawsuit claiming discrimination. However, in August 2021, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana ruled for the Archdiocese in Lynn Starkey v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Inc., and Roncalli High School, Inc., 1:19-cv-03153.

Starkey appealed the ruling. Her attorney, Kathleen DeLaney of DeLaney & DeLaney in Indianapolis, asserted this was the first time a court had found that guidance counselors are covered by the ministerial exception.

Rokita’s brief echoes two arguments made by the Archdiocese.

First, the brief contends the 7th Circuit cannot meddle in matters of church doctrine. Citing Our Lady of Guadalupe Sch. V. Morrissey-Berru, 591 U.S. __ (2020), and Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. V. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012) — the two U.S. Supreme Court rulings that expanded the legal doctrine of the ministerial exception — the brief asserts the ministerial exception provides that decisions about “who will minister to the faithful” are to be made by the Archdiocese alone.

Further, the brief argues the Southern Indiana District Court properly concluded Starkey was a minister at Roncalli.

The brief argues Starkey delivered morning prayer, planned all-school liturgies and served on an administrative council with the mission of shaping the religious environment of the school. And, the brief continues, even though she performed duties that were secular, such as scheduling classes, administering exams and offering career guidance, the district court properly determined it would be inappropriate for the judiciary “to draw a distinction between secular and religious guidance offered by a guidance counselor at a Catholic School.”

Oral arguments have not been scheduled in Lynn Starkey v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis, et al., 21-2524.

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