INDIANAPOLIS — The United States Court of Appeals has affirmed the decision of a federal judge who sided with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis and Roncalli High Schoolin a lawsuit filed in 2019 by former Co-Director of Guidance Lynn Starkey.
In a court document filed Thursday, the court said Starkey was a school leader and part of her responsibilities were to convey the Catholic faith to students as part of Roncalli's religious mission.
Starkey filed the lawsuit in July 2019 alleging a hostile work environment and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and retaliation under Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The lawsuit was filed after Starkey alleges the principal of Roncalli High School told her she breached her employment agreement because she was in a same-sex civil union and wouldn't be offered a contract for the next school year.
The document says Roncalli's school teacher contracts required employees to "refrain from “any personal conduct or lifestyle at variance with the policies of the Archdiocese or the moral or religious teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.” Failure to do so would result in “default under th[e] contract.”"
In 2018, the document says Starkey signed a contract with a similar morals clause that stated "an employee was in default if the employee were to engage in a relationship “contrary to a valid marriage as seen through the eyes of the Catholic Church,” which defines marriage as between a man and a woman."
Starkey did not dispute the document's text or that she signed them but argued the documents did not describe her or the school's actual conduct.
"Starkey argues that even if she were entrusted with religious responsibilities, she should not be considered a minister because she never engaged in religious matters or held a formal religious title," the document read.
It concluded: "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."
After the ruling, Starkey's attorney released the following statement:
For 40 years, Lynn Starkey was an award-winning educator at Roncalli High School, who was beloved by students, parents and faculty. Roncalli’s principal repeatedly documented that Lynn was in the top 1% of educators with whom he’s ever worked. Lynn’s reason for pursuing this lawsuit was to help prevent other employees of religious institutions from suffering wrongful discrimination. Lynn is disappointed in the Court’s opinion and plans to continue to advocate that government funding not go to private schools that engage in discrimination.
Luke Goodrich, vice president senior counsel at Becket Law, the firm who represented the Archdiocese, released the following statement:
“Religious groups have a constitutional right to hire individuals who believe in their faith’s ideals and are committed to their religious mission,” said Goodrich. “The Seventh Circuit’s decision ensures that religious schools can remain faithful to their mission.”
Goodrich also tweeted after the ruling.
#BREAKING: A federal appeals court just protected the freedom of religious schools to choose their leaders--rejecting a lawsuit by an ex-guidance counselor who entered a same-sex union contrary to her contract and church teaching: 1/https://t.co/IEmUJMeBR7— Luke Goodrich (@LukeWGoodrich) July 28, 2022
Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita also released a statement about the ruling.
"All the leftist woke-ism in the world cannot compete with the wisdom of America’s founders as embodied in the First Amendment,” Attorney General Rokita said. “Just like the founders, we must remain resolute in resisting governmental intrusion into matters of faith and doctrine. Hoosiers have the right to worship as they choose, and churches have the right to uphold the beliefs they consider sacred.”
In the email statement, Rokita went on to say "Folks have different viewpoints on same-sex marriage, but the fact remains that churches and religious institutions have the right to require their ministerial staff, including educators, to support and uphold their doctrinal teachings.”
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