In a boost for religious freedom, a federal court in Indiana has ruled in favor of a Catholic school’s right to forego renewing a guidance counselor’s contract because she married another woman in violation of the school’s code of conduct and the teachings of the Catholic church. The woman sued the school, claiming she was discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation, but the court, following recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, ruled in favor of the school’s right to decide who its “ministers” should be.

Lynn Starkey worked for the Roncalli High School, a private Catholic educational institution in Indianapolis, Indiana, for nearly 40 years. She held a variety of positions with the school, the latest being the Co-Director of Guidance.

Starkey’s employment contract stipulated that she must abide by, among other things, the Catholic church’s teaching on marriage, i.e., that only one man and one woman can enter into such a union. When the school learned of Starkey’s marriage to another woman, it decided not to renew her contract, and Starkey sued.

Federal District Judge Richard L. Young ruled that based on the Supreme Court’s recent decisions regarding the First Amendment and the hiring rights of religious organizations, Starkey could not ask the courts to step in and order the Catholic school to reinstate her. In what is known as the “ministerial exception,” the high court has ruled that the government cannot force a religious organization to hire a minister it does not wish to hire, nor retain a minister it wishes to fire. 

That right, the high court has explained, derives from the First Amendment’s religion clauses. “The First Amendment protects the right of religious institutions ‘to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine,’” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority of the court in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru in 2020.

In the Indiana case, Ms. Starkey was expected as a guidance counselor to “perform a variety of religious duties and to help carry out the school’s mission,” according to Judge Young’s ruling. She was supposed to act as a role model and lead students toward Christian maturity.

As more of these types of “ministerial exception” cases are decided, there is less confusion as to what types of employees are now considered to be ministers. Judge Young noted the exception has been applied to organists, a press secretary and a school principal, in addition to ordained ministers.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty represents Roncalli High School.

“Today’s ruling is common sense: religious groups have a constitutional right to hire people who agree with their religious beliefs and practices,” Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, said in a press release. “At all levels of the judiciary, courts have made clear that the government has no place interfering with a religious organization’s decision about who can pass on the faith to the next generation.”  

And as The Daily Citizen has reported, there is yet another pending case involving a professor at Gordon College, a Christian educational institution in Wenham, Massachusetts, that has arrived at the Supreme Court. If the justices agree to hear that case, a decision in favor of the college could further flesh out the parameters of the First Amendment’s protection of religious organizations and their hiring decisions.

For now, it is unknown whether the Indiana decision will be appealed to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. We’ll update you as the case advances.

The case is Starkey v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

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