Court upholds right of Catholic school to fire employee in same-sex relationship

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“Religious groups have a constitutional right to hire individuals who believe in their faith’s ideals and are committed to their religious mission. Our justice system has consistently ruled that the government cannot intrude on a religious organization’s choice of who will pass on the faith to the next generation.”

LUKE GOODRICH, VICE PRESIDENT AND SENIOR COUNSEL, BECKETT LAW GROUP

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that a Catholic school had the right to choose not to renew a guidance counselor’s contract after she entered into a same-sex union in violation of school rules, her contract, and the Catholic faith.


Quick Facts


In the case of Starkey v. Roncalli High School and Archdiocese of Indianapolis, the court ruled that Lynn Starkey performed ministerial functions and thus could be fired based on her same-sex relationship.

Roncalli High School is a Catholic school in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. Its mission is to “provide, in concert with parents, parish, and community, an educational opportunity which seeks to form Christian leaders in body, mind, and spirit,” and it also “further[s] the mission and purposes of the Archdiocese.”

When hiring, the principal must consider whether the prospective employee is a “faithful Catholic,” “involved in the Catholic community,” and “wants to grow with” Roncalli. The school continues to evaluate “which teachers and counselors are actively seeking opportunities to be involved in the faith formation and overall development of [its] students.” Employees are hired on one-year contracts, and this is a key element of the decision whether to retain them.

Starkey had been with Roncalli since 1978, except for a one-year absence three years after she started there. Starkey’s latest role had been as co-director of guidance where she helped draft performance criteria for the guidance counselors under her supervision. Half of the criteria for a Distinguished School Counselor were religious in nature, including:

Starkey is not a practicing Catholic, although she attended monthly school Masses and received Communion. For three decades the school has included a morals clause in its contracts, such as in 2017 when the contract included a statement that any personal conduct or lifestyle which deviated with the policies of the Archdiocese or teachings of the Roman Catholic Church would result in default under the contract.

Starkey signed that contract, but in 2018 told Roncalli that she was in a same-sex union. The school permitted her to finish her contract but also informed her that her contract would not be renewed.

Starkey then filed suit against the school.

A lower court dismissed her claims, citing the ministerial exception which “ensures that the authority to select and control who will minister to the faithful—a matter strictly ecclesiastical—is the church’s alone.”

Starkey appealed and claimed that she was not a minister, even though she signed a School Guidance Counselor Ministry Contract with a ministry description.

The Seventh Circuit agreed with the lower court, ruling,

“Starkey was a minister because she was entrusted with communicating the Catholic faith to the school’s students and guiding the school’s religious mission. The ministerial exception bars all her claims, federal and state. This opinion therefore does not reach the parties’ Title VII, RFRA, or other constitutional arguments. We AFFIRM the district court.”

Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel of Becket Law Group, which represented Roncalli High School, said,

“Religious groups have a constitutional right to hire individuals who believe in their faith’s ideals and are committed to their religious mission. Our justice system has consistently ruled that the government cannot intrude on a religious organization’s choice of who will pass on the faith to the next generation.”

He continued, “Catholic schools are tasked by the Church to uphold the dignity of every human person and teach the fullness of the Catholic faith,” “The Seventh Circuit’s decision ensures that religious schools can remain faithful to their mission.”

This is a huge win for religious liberty. In this case, the court upheld the established right of religious schools to require employees to exemplify their faith. It is lunacy to require a religious school to employ people who live in complete opposition to the teachings of the school and the school’s affiliated religious organization.

As a religious school, it is Roncalli’s responsibility to ensure that staff are being a good example of lived-out faith for the students.

Starkey signed her contract knowing that she was not a practicing Catholic and knowing that she was living in opposition to their beliefs and in violation of her contract. Yet when the school chose not to renew her contract, she filed suit. No one forced her to work at Roncalli, where religious observance was a requirement.

In today’s society, it’s increasingly assumed by activists and some state governments and courts that secular beliefs are superior to religious ones, and as a result, secular employees have a right to undermine the mission of faith-based organizations.

A case in point is Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission (UGM). When the mission, which does street preaching and serves the homeless, declined to retain the services of a bisexual lawyer after finding out he was in a same-sex relationship, the lawyer sued. The Washington Supreme Court ruled in favor of the employee that UGM could only apply its rules on behavior to ministerial employees. Under that ruling, UGM would be required to retain the lawyer, even though he wanted the job for the purpose of changing the organization’s beliefs.

The UGM case was appealed to the Supreme Court last year, but the Court declined to hear the case — for now at least. At the time, Justice Alito, joined by Justice Thomas, wrote that “the Washington Supreme Court’s decision may warrant our review in the future,” noting that if states “could compel religious organizations to hire employees who fundamentally disagree with them, many religious non-profits would be extinguished from participation in public life.” 

The Seventh Circuit’s ruling in the Roncalli case shows that these types of case are about more than just religious liberty. It’s about the degree to which government and the activist class can dictate to religious organizations who they can hire and how they can live out their beliefs. Even if it’s not definitive, the Roncalli ruling helps further the principle that even in an increasingly secular environment, religious organizations still have the right to operate according to their sincerely held faith, in accordance with the First Amendment and the RFRA.


Ready to dive deeper into the intersection of faith and policy? Head over to our Theology of Politics series page where we’ve published several long-form pieces that will help Christians navigate where their faith should direct them on political issues.