Fired Church Worker Files Discrimination Lawsuit Against Indianapolis Catholic School

Lynn Starkey

A church worker fired by a Catholic high school over her same-gender marriage is now suing that school for discrimination, further intensifying the church employment disputes that have rocked the Archdiocese of Indianapolis this past year.

Lynn Starkey filed her lawsuit against Roncalli High School this month after being given permission to do so by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The Indianapolis Star reported:

“Lynn Starkey alleges that the archdiocese and Roncalli subjected her to a hostile work environment, discriminated against her on the basis of her sexual orientation and retaliated against her due to her complaints of discrimination. . .

“According to the complaint, Starkey has ‘lost sleep, gained weight and suffers from anxiety,’ because of the actions of Roncalli and the archdiocese. She took leave for a month in December and another month between April and May to receive medical and mental health treatment for the emotional distress she’s suffered, according the complaint.

“Starkey also alleges that the environment at Roncalli was hostile toward homosexual students, faculty and staff.”

Starkey, who had worked at Roncalli as a guidance counselor for nearly forty years, was told last year that her contract for the 2019-2020 school year would not be renewed because she was in a same-gender marriage and therefore violated the “morality clause” in her contract. The fired church worker told WTHR 13:

“I dedicated my professional career to Roncalli. To be treated this way after thirty-nine years has been devastating to me. . .I look forward to pursuing justice through my case.”

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis defended her dismissal after the lawsuit was filed, saying it was “clearly barred by Supreme Court precedent” and that “Constitution fully protects the Church’s efforts” to hire and fire employees it deems as ministers at will.

Starkey’s is the second discrimination lawsuit that Roncalli is facing. Shelly Fitzgerald, who was suspended after being given the choice of divorcing her wife or losing her job in 2018, has also filed her own EEOC complaint for discrimination. In January 2019, Roncalli barred Fitzgerald’s father, Pat, from participating in the senior retreat on which he has assisted for decades, leading to a second EEOC filing.

The Roncalli lawsuits are only one aspect of the situation in Indianapolis, which has become ground zero for LGBTQ-related church employment disputes. Just two months ago, Archbishop Charles Thompson forced Cathedral High School to fire former teacher Joshua Payne-Elliott over his same-gender marriage. Thompson tried to get Brebeuf Jesuit High School to fire Payne-Elliott’s husband, Layton, who taught at the school but the Jesuits refused to do so. Brebeuf was consequently stripped of its “Catholic” designation by the archbishop. Joshua Payne-Elliott settled with Cathedral High, but is proceeding with a lawsuit against the Archdiocese.

There have been numerous commentaries about these situations in Indianapolis and the larger question of LGBTQ church worker justice. Indianapolis voices continue to fervently debate the schools’ differing decisions.

The National Catholic Reporter ran a series of reactions to the disputes. Letters ranged from supportive to dismissive, spurring calls for empathy, consistency, and a closer examination of contract law. While some respondents said that Cathedral High School was justified in firing Payne-Elliott on the basis of a violated contract, others called out the school’s fear of losing tax-exempt status as unfounded. Indianapolis local Robert Katz laid out the distinctions in tax law that would allow Cathedral to reapply for an independent 501(c)(3) status, saying that their statement about the decision was based on “an erroneous understanding.”

Marc Luxenberg of West Hollywood argues the same, but in stronger terms:

“In light of their false excuse, the position of administrators at Cathedral must be seen as a deference to church authority even against their informed conscience—which led them to a public [but likely insincere] claim they fully support the teacher in question. With lies and obfuscations, Cathedral administrators are teaching a sad lesson to their students.” 

Ellen Kobe, an alumna of Brebeuf Jesuit, shared via CNN that the teachings of the Jesuits were front and center during her time at the school, which she says are “moral standards that Brebeuf is living out and which the archdiocese sorely lacks.” While she acknowledges that Cathedral is in a slightly different position, as they had more to risk losing, Kobe argued that the stakes are on a different plane entirely. She wrote: “When leaders of Catholic institutions focus solely on doctrine, status of other rules of the Church, they lose sight of what this religion is all about—God’s unconditional love for all people.” 

A response from the Jesuit Post was also decidedly supportive of Brebeuf’s decision. Yet rather than celebrating this win for the school and the Jesuit sense of morality, they noted the pain that was present because the decision caused a rift between the school and diocese. That division causes “less pride over being Jesuit-educated and more sorrow for the widening division of our church.” They invoke Pope Francis, the most well-known Jesuit today, in his statement calling for the church to be “the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone.”

Margaret Renkel wrote an op-ed in The New York Times that broadened the question to what it means to live by an”informed conscience.” She recalls an experience from her own childhood in a Catholic elementary school, circa 1973, in which she posed to her parish priest a question about the existence of both hell and an all-merciful God. The priest responded:

“[She should] study church teachings and listen to the explanations of my elders and pray for discernment—and if I did all those things and nevertheless came to a conclusion at odds with my church’s position, I was not obliged to follow church teaching. In fact, I was obliged to do the opposite: to honor the moral wisdom of my own conscience over the teachings of my church.”

Renkel’s article ran under the title How to Defy the Catholic Church, and she says that not only can we defy the church, but we must—that “love will never truly win until everyone stands up for it.” She recalls the 2015 Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality, primarily Justice Kennedy’s majority decision that “in forming a marital union, two people become something greater than they once were.” Renkel builds on this language to apply it to a wider obligation: “In defending the moral and spiritual equality of those in same-sex marriages, Christian believers have the opportunity to become something greater than once they were.”

As the fall approaches and schools in Indianapolis prepare to reopen, two without longtime beloved educators and counselors, it will be important to note how members of the local community react to their respective schools’ decisions. Will it be business as usual, or will the opposite choices of Cathedral and Roncalli versus Brebeuf Jesuit shape the moral character and reputation of each in a deeper way? It would be a mistake to imagine that these will be the last schools asked to make such a decision: all Catholic educators, indeed all Catholics, should be prepared to follow their own informed consciences when the time comes.

For Bondings 2.0’s full coverage of church employment issues, click the “Employment” category on the right-hand side of this page. For New Ways Ministry’s resources on church employment and LGBTQ issues here.

–Catherine Buck and Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, August 3, 2019

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