‘Ministerial exception’ discovery motion fails in lawsuit against Indianapolis Archdiocese

A motion in a lawsuit against the Indianapolis Archdiocese to limit discovery to the question of whether a fired gay counselor falls under the First Amendment’s “ministerial exception” has been defeated in “close call” in Indiana federal court.

Lynn Starkey, a 39-year employee of Roncalli High School, sued the school and the Archdioceses of Indianapolis in July, claiming discrimination and a hostile work environment. The former co-director of guidance at Roncalli was fired from her position for allegedly breaching her employment contract after the school learned of her marriage to another woman.

According to her complaint, Starkey became concerned about her employment after her colleague, Shelly Fitzgerald, was removed from her job in August 2018 because she is also in a same-sex marriage. Fitzgerald has also filed her own lawsuit against Roncalli and the archdiocese.

In September, the school and archdiocese moved to stay the proceedings in Starkey’s complaint pending a potentially controlling U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Altitude Express, Inc. v. Zarda, No. 17-1623, cert. granted 2019 WL 1756678 (U.S. Apr. 22, 2019) and Bostock v. Clayton County, No. 17-1618, cert. granted 2019 WL 1756677 (U.S. Apr. 22, 2019), consolidated cases heard in October. In those cases, the question is whether discrimination against an employee because of sexual orientation constitutes prohibited employment discrimination “because of . . . sex” within the meaning of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

However, U.S. Magistrate Judge Tim Baker of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana denied the defendants’ motion to stay after concluding that halting the litigation was “not justified based on potential insight that might be gleaned from a Supreme Court ruling” in the consolidated cases.

“This time around, Defendants have filed a motion to bifurcate discovery seeking to limit initial discovery to the issue of the applicability of what is termed the ‘ministerial exception’ that provides First Amendment safeguards to religious groups,” Baker wrote in a Friday order. “Defendants’ motion to bifurcate raises a significantly closer question than did their motion to stay proceedings. In the end, however, the result is the same: discovery shall procced unbridled by bifurcation.”

The school and archdiocese asserted in their motion to bifurcate discovery that the district court “must first address the applicability of the ministerial exception, and that the remainder of the case should be bifurcated unless and until the court” deemed it inapplicable. But Baker wrote that although numerous cases cited by the defendants’ purportedly supported their argument for limited discovery, the cases were “far from conclusive on the bifurcation issue.”

Baker further noted the district court was, among other things, struck by “significant and material disputes in the facts underlying Starkey’s duties with the Archdiocese,” leaving the applicability of the ministerial exception “up in the air.” He therefore concluded that whether Starkey’s role could be considered ministerial is subject to a fact-intensive analysis and that the ministerial exception is an affirmative defense for which the defendants carry the burden of proof.

The magistrate judge also noted Starkey’s job duties, as provided by her understanding, were “so vastly different” than those presented by the school, which asserted she was designated in her written employment contact as a “a minister of the faith.” Starkey, however, asserted that her job duties did not include any religious duties and that she has never held a title with the Catholic Church or held herself out as a minister.

“In the case at bar, this litigation will proceed most expeditiously not by throwing up the barrier of bifurcation, but rather by moving forward with full discovery,” Baker wrote. “… While an admittedly close question, this Court exercises its discretion by denying Defendants’ motion to bifurcate discovery.”

Thus, the school and archdiocese must respond to Starkey’s outstanding discovery requests within 14 days of the Friday order.

In addition to the Roncalli lawsuits, the Indianapolis Archdiocese is also facing litigation from Joshua Payne-Elliott, a former teacher at Cathedral High School whose contract was terminated because he is in a same-sex marriage.

Meanwhile, in another ministerial-exception case, the U.S. Supreme Court last week agreed to consider expanding protections for churches against job-discrimination claims.

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