Catholic school’s firing of guidance counselor upheld
Court bolsters autonomy of religious institutions in employment decisions
A unanimous panel of a federal appeals court Thursday ruled that an Indiana Catholic high school’s decision to fire a school guidance counselor for entering into a same-sex relationship was legal. The court held that a First Amendment doctrine that protects the autonomy of religious organizations shielded from the school from judicial second-guessing.
The ruling by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals brings closer to an end a 2019 lawsuit brought by Lynn Starkey challenging her firing by Roncalli High School, a Catholic school in Indianapolis. Starkey, a long-time employee of the school, argued that the school’s failure to renew her contract violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits sex discrimination. That bar was extended to discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity by the Supreme Court’s 2020 ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County.
In August 2021, a lower court found that Roncalli administrators’ decision not to renew Starkey’s contract was protected by the ministerial exception protecting religious autonomy that has engendered multiple lawsuits to determine which employees qualify as ministers. In a 2020 ruling, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, the Supreme Court extended the ministerial exception to elementary school teachers at two Catholic schools, finding that both served a “vital religious function.”
The parameters of the ministerial exception are still being fleshed out, yet Thursday’s ruling provides further clarity for religious organizations. Starkey argued that a school ministry description calling her a “minister of faith” and tasking her with communicating and modeling the faith were irrelevant, as she didn’t actually do anything religious. Yet the court rejected that “bad minister” argument.
“What an employee does involves what an employee is entrusted to do, not simply what acts an employee chooses to perform,” the three-judge panel concluded, adding that “an employee is still a minister if she fails to adequately perform the religious duties she was hired and entrusted to do.” The panel agreed with the district court’s decision that Starkey was a minister under the ministerial exception, as well as its ruling that the exception bars Starkey’s three federal Title VII claims for discrimination, retaliation, and hostile work environment.
It also dismissed Starkey’s claims under state law, which included interference with a contractual relationship and with an employment relationship. Following the lead of other courts, it held that the ministerial exception applies to state law claims that implicate ecclesiastical matters.
“To evaluate either claim requires review of the Church’s authority over the employer, the employer-employee relationship, and the contents of the employee’s contract, the panel ruled. “Such a review would result in excessive judicial entanglement in ecclesiastical matters.”
Circuit Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote separately to emphasize that the case should have ended with a consideration of Section 702(a) of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which exempts employment decisions by religious organizations from provisions otherwise barring sex, race, and other discrimination.
Prior rulings held that the exemption covered “religious” discrimination but not other forms of discrimination, pushing other circuits to consider the constitutional argument. Easterbrook rejected that reading of the law. “Firing people who have same-sex partners is sex discrimination, Bostock holds,” Easterbrook concluded. “But it is also religious discrimination. The Diocese is carrying out its theological views; that its adherence to Roman Catholic doctrine produces a form of sex discrimination does not make the action less religiously based.”
Starkey could ask for a rehearing of the case by the full court or appeal directly to the Supreme Court, yet the odds that either court will take the case are unlikely.
While the ruling is not controlling outside the Seventh Circuit, which includes Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, it may prove persuasive in other pending cases. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which encompasses several mid-Atlantic and southern states, is currently considering an appeal of a September 2021 ruling declining to apply the ministerial exception to a substitute English and drama teacher at North Carolina’s Charlotte Catholic High School.
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