A district court has sided with a Catholic high school which maintained it had a right to fire a counselor who was in a same-sex relationship on the basis of ministerial exception.
The former counselor, Lynn Starkey, had sued the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis and Roncalli High School after being fired over her marriage to another woman, which conflicts with church teaching on marriage.
However, a judge agrees that the school had every right to let her go over their objection to her lifestyle, as The Christian Post reported.
“When the state interferes with these types of employment decisions, it violates both the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment,” U.S. District Judge Richard Young wrote in his ruling on Wednesday.
“The ministerial exception is not limited to claims of religious discrimination; it bars all claims of discrimination under Title VII, including discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation,” he explained.
The judge noted that Starkey had a significant role in shaping the “educational and spiritual environment” of the school which “weigh heavily in favor of applying the ministerial exception.”
The counselor had “helped plan all-school liturgies, she delivered the morning prayer on at least a few occasions, she worked with other Administrative Council members to identify ways in which Roncalli can differentiate itself from the local public schools, and she participated in discussion groups about books aimed at enhancing faith formation,” the judge wrote.
He explained that it is simply not the role of the court to determine where Starkey’s position could have been treated as a job that was separate from the religious motivation of the school.
Judge Young noted that just because Starkey had characterized her work at the school “in purely secular terms” that this “does not change the result because it would be inappropriate for this court to draw a distinction between secular and religious guidance offered by a guidance counselor at a Catholic school.”
According to National Catholic Reporter, Starkey worked at the school for almost 40 years but was told she would not be offered a new contract with the school in 2019. While she married in 2015, she signed an employment contract that included the ministerial clause in 2017.
Her lawsuit contended that she had been discriminated against on the basis of her sexual orientation.
An attorney from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which helped represent the archdiocese in this case and which has been involved in a number of high-profile religious liberty cases, praised the ruling, which he called “common sense.”
Becket vice president and senior counsel said that “religious groups have a constitutional right to hire people who agree with their religious beliefs and practices.”
“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,” he added.
Roncalli has also been sued by another former guidance counselor, Shelley Fitzgerald, who was fired by the school due to her same-sex marriage. The result of the lawsuit is still pending.
In response to that suit, the school outlined their expectation that every member of the school staff “must convey and be supportive of the teachings of the Catholic Church” both at school and in their personal lives.
“These teachings include, but are not limited to: honoring the dignity of each human life from conception to natural death, care for God’s creation, and the belief that all persons are called to respect human sexuality and its expression in the sacrament of marriage between a man and a woman as a sign of God’s love and fidelity to His Church.”
This is a heartening ruling that defends the right of a religious organization to hire and fire people based on their mission in living out their deeply held beliefs. Had a court ruled that this school must retain the employment of people who willingly disregard church teachings in their private life, it would have been a very clear violation of the First Amendment, and such violations have been far too frequent in recent years.
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