July 29, 2022

Appeals court rules Indy Archdiocese could legally fire Roncalli counselor in same-sex marriage

Before the federal appeals court ruling, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis has maintained its rights to only hire individuals who follow the teaching of the Catholic Church.  - (WFYI file photo)

Before the federal appeals court ruling, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis has maintained its rights to only hire individuals who follow the teaching of the Catholic Church.

(WFYI file photo)

A federal appeals court ruled Thursday the Archdiocese of Indianapolis acted within the law when it fired a long-time counselor because she is in a same-sex marriage.

The Chicago-based Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the former counselor was employed as a minister at the Catholic faith-based Roncalli High School, and she was expected to support the school’s religious mission and follow church teachings in her personal life to remain employed. The Catholic Church does not support gay marriage.

The court affirmed a district court’s year-old decision in a 27-page ruling and barred discrimination, retaliation and hostile work environment claims from going forward against the archdiocese and the school. The court cited past Supreme Court decisions on the principle of ministerial exception that allows religious institutions to determine employment rules with certain employees.

Becket, the legal group representing the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis and the high school, said the appeals court decision ensures that religious schools can remain faithful to their mission.

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

Lynn Starkey, a nearly 40-year employee of Roncalli and its former co-director of guidance, filed a lawsuit in 2019 asserting the school and church discriminated and retailed against her because of her same-sex marriage. 

Starkey argued she was not in a ministerial role at the school. She told the court she is not a practicing Catholic, and did not receive religious training. 

In a statement, Kathleen DeLaney, Starkey's attorney, said the former counselor was an award-winning educator and beloved by Roncalli students, parents and faculty.

“Lynn’s reason for pursuing this lawsuit was to help prevent other employees of religious institutions from suffering wrongful discrimination,” DeLaney said in a statement. “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."

Last year, Roncalli High School received $3.15 million in state funds from the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program, which allows some parents to apply public school dollars toward private school tuition, according to recent data. Roncalli enrolls around 1,000 students in grades 9-12 and is located in the city's south side Edgewood neighborhood.

Attempts by a few lawmakers to add anti-discrimination requirements for private schools that are part of the school voucher program have not gained traction at the Statehouse.

Starkey’s lawsuit was one of several legal challenges in the past few years from educators who were fired due to their sexual orientation by Indianapolis-area Catholic schools. 

Contact WFYI education editor Eric Weddle at eweddle@wfyi.org or call (317) 614-0470. Follow on Twitter: @ericweddle.

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