Catholic school shielded from counselor's bias claims over same-sex relationship

Lockers are seen at a High School. Picture taken April 13, 2021. REUTERS/Hannah Beier
  • Religious exemption also applies to contract claims under state law
  • 7th Circuit joins every other federal appeals court to consider the issue

(Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court has ruled that a Catholic high school in Indianapolis is immune from claims that it unlawfully fired its head guidance counselor after she revealed that she was in a same-sex relationship.

A unanimous three-judge panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said on Thursday that an exemption from anti-discrimination laws for religious organizations also applies when workers bring contract claims under state law that implicate religious matters.

The so-called "ministerial exception" bars discrimination claims against churches and affiliated organizations by workers with religious duties. The U.S. Supreme Court in the 2020 case Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru embraced a broad interpretation of the exception, applying it to Catholic school teachers who did not have explicitly religious roles.

The 7th Circuit, joining every other federal appeals court to consider the issue, said that because the exception arises from the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, it applies to employment-related claims brought under state laws that implicate a church's internal governance.

The school, Roncalli High School, and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis are represented by the nonprofit Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, in a statement said “religious groups have a constitutional right to hire individuals who believe in their faith’s ideals and are committed to their religious mission."

Lawyers at DeLaney & DeLaney in Indianapolis who represent the plaintiff, Lynn Starkey, said in a statement that she was disappointed with the decision "and plans to continue to advocate that government funding not go to private schools that engage in discrimination."

Starkey sued Roncalli in 2019, claiming her contract was not renewed after 40 years working at the school because she had a same-sex partner. She accused the school of sex discrimination in violation of federal law and included a state-law claim for violating her employment contract.

A federal judge in Indianapolis dismissed the case last year, saying Starkey qualified as a "minister" and Roncalli was immune from her claims.

Starkey on appeal argued that while her job description included some religious duties, in practice she only dealt with secular matters.

The 7th Circuit on Thursday disagreed, saying Roncalli expected Starkey to communicate the Catholic faith to students.

"What an employee does involves what an employee is entrusted to do, not simply what acts an employee chooses to perform," Circuit Judge Michael Brennan wrote.

The panel included Circuit Judges Frank Easterbrook and Amy St. Eve.

The case is Starkey v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis, 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 21-2524.

For Starkey: Kathleen DeLaney and Matthew Gutwein of DeLaney & DeLaney

For the Archdiocese: Luke Goodrich of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

(NOTE: This article has been updated to include statements from the plaintiff's lawyers and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.)

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Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at daniel.wiessner@thomsonreuters.com.