Religious guidance for religious schools
Court upholds Catholic high school’s right to hire and fire counselors
A federal court last week upheld the right of an Indianapolis Catholic high school to fire a guidance counselor who violated church teaching by entering a same-sex relationship.
Lynn Starkey sued Roncalli High School in 2019 claiming her job did not differ substantially from one at the public high school where she is currently employed. She said she mostly offered nonreligious support like scheduling students for classes and helping with college applications. She accused school officials of discriminating against her and creating a hostile work environment due to her sexual orientation.
A federal court in Indianapolis rejected those claims, finding the ministerial doctrine protected the school from Starkey’s lawsuit. Courts continue to wrestle with the breadth of the ministerial exception, a constitutionally derived doctrine that keeps the government from second-guessing religious organizations’ employment decisions that are important to their mission.
In a 20-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Richard Young, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, concluded Starkey clearly qualified as a minister who served a “vital religious function” at the school. Not only did the school describe Starkey’s position as a “minister of faith,” Young noted, but guidance counselors also worshipped and prayed with students and modeled Catholicism.
“One may reasonably presume that a religious school would expect faith to play a role in that work, and Roncalli expressly entrusted Starkey with the responsibility of communicating the Catholic faith to students and fostering spiritual growth,” the judge wrote. “It would be inappropriate for this court to draw a distinction between secular and religious guidance offered by a guidance counselor at a Catholic school.”
Last year’s Supreme Court ruling in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru extended the ministerial exception to elementary school teachers at two Catholic schools, finding that both served a “vital religious function.” Last month, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the exception barred lawsuits over hostile work environment claims like Starkey’s.
Young noted that other courts have applied the exception to an organist, a press secretary, and a school principal. But he recognized the doctrine has limits: “For example, it would be difficult to credit a religious employer's claim that a custodian or school bus driver qualifies as a minister simply because the employer said so.”
But as the Supreme Court said in Guadalupe, it is not a job title or description that matters so much as what the employee actually does.
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