SCOTUS ruling isn’t ‘end of the road’ for fired Roncalli, Cathedral educators, attorney says

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with comments from the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and the Office of Indiana Attorney General.

An attorney for two Indianapolis educators who were fired for their same-sex marriages doesn’t think a Wednesday U.S. Supreme Court employment discrimination ruling that favored two Catholic Schools will impact her clients’ pending cases.

The Supreme Court’s Wednesday 7-2 ruling — in which Associate Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented — held that certain employees of religious schools cannot sue for employment discrimination.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote that allowing courts to consider workplace discrimination claims against the schools would interfere with the schools’ constitutionally guaranteed religious independence. Wednesday’s cases involved two California schools that were sued by former teachers who alleged disability discrimination and age discrimination, respectively.

Closer to home, employment discrimination cases are pending for former Roncalli High School co-director of counseling Lynn Starkey and former Cathedral High School teacher Joshua Payne-Elliott. Both were terminated from their positions at their respective Catholic schools last year after their same-sex marriages came to light.

Starkey filed a complaint last summer in the Southern Indiana District Court against the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and Roncalli, claiming she was subjected to a hostile work environment and discrimination because she is married to another woman.

Payne-Elliott likewise sued the Indianapolis Archdiocese, but filed a complaint  in the Marion Superior Court after his contract at Cathedral High School was not renewed because he is in a same-sex marriage. He alleges the church leadership illegally interfered with his contractual and employment relationship with the high school, which led to his termination last June.

Roncalli did not respond to a request for comment. Cathedral referred a request for comment to the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, which issued a statement Wednesday afternoon. “We welcome the Supreme Court’s decision recognizing that Catholic schools must be free to make decisions about those entrusted to educate and form students in the Catholic faith,” the statement said. “Catholic educators play a vital role in guiding their students, by word and deed, and passing on the faith to future generations.”

Attorney Kathleen DeLaney, who represents both Starkey and Payne-Elliott, said that while she thinks SCOTUS’s decision is unfortunate for everyone who teaches in a Catholic school across the country, it will not be outcome determinative of either of the cases she is handling.

“The court decides the cases that are before them and there are significant differences between today’s cases and the cases we are working on. I don’t think it is the end of the road for either Lynn Starkey or Joshua Payne-Elliott,” the DeLaney & DeLaney LLC attorney told Indiana Lawyer.

One of the main differences, DeLaney said, is that the Wednesday decisions both involved elementary school teachers who spent all day with the same group of students, teaching them all subjects, including religion.

“Those are significant differences because both Lynn Starkey and Joshua Payne-Elliot worked in the high school environment and their work was limited to one particular area,” she noted.

“Lynn was not a teacher at all, she was a guidance counselor and worked with students on their academicals, career plans, college applications. And she did at Roncalli the same work that she is doing now in a public high school. Josh taught German and social studies to high school students, and again — not a religious component to it and he is doing similar work now in the public school,” she said.

Additionally, DeLaney pointed out that Payne-Elliott’s claims arise under Indiana state law, not under federal law, so they are even further removed from Wednesday’s decision.

Shelly Fitzgerald, who worked alongside Starkey at Roncalli as a co-director of the guidance department, was similarly fired for being in a same-sex relationship. She also sued the archdiocese and Roncalli.   

Payne-Elliott’s spouse, Layton Payne-Elliott, teaches at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis. Brebeuf refused to fire Layton, and the archdiocese said it no longer recognizes Brebeuf as a Catholic institution.

Notre Dame Law School Professor Richard Garnett said the SCOTUS decision should not be read as a “license to discriminate,” but rather stands for the proposition that the state “lacks authority to second-guess religious decisions and doctrines.

Although the case involved a doctrine often called ‘the ministerial exception’, the Court’s ruling makes clear that it applies more broadly than to ordained clergy or full-time ministers,” said Garnett, who also is director of the Notre Dame Program on Church, State & Society.

“What matters, as Justice Alito noted, is what a particular employee does, and not simply what he or she is called,” Garnett said. This ruling by the Court corrected the mistaken ruling by a lower court that had unduly narrowed a broad religious-freedom principle into a cramped and mechanistic formula.”

Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill also applauded the SCOTUS decision, having previously joined a brief on behalf of Indiana advocating for a decision in support of religious schools.

“Religious freedom is among our most fundamental American liberties,” Hill said in a statement. “There’s a good reason that James Madison, in drafting the Bill of Rights, placed religious freedom first in the list of guaranteed rights, and we must continue to stand resolute in defense of these freedoms yet today.”

Also on Wednesday, the Supreme Court sided with the Trump administration in its effort to allow employers who cite religious or moral objections to opt out of providing no-cost birth control to women as required by the Affordable Care Act.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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