A federal court in Indiana has sided with a Catholic high school on its decision to fire a guidance counselor because of her same-gender marriage, a decision now being appealed.
Lynn Starkey worked at Roncalli High School, Indianapolis for nearly forty years when she was fired in 2019. Since then, Starkey has filed a lawsuit against the school and the Archdiocese of Indianapolis claiming a hostile work environment and discrimination.
In his decision, Judge Richard Young concluded that Starkey “qualified as a minister and that the ministerial exception bars all of Starkey’s claims.” Her role as a guidance counselor extended into the faith formation of students which allowed the school to claim the ministerial exception.
Starkey’s attorney, Kathleen DeLaney, expressed disappointment. According to Pink News, she said, “We’re disappointed with the court’s ruling and concerned about its potential impact, not just on Lynn Starkey, but on all educators in religious schools.”
An appeal in the federal Seventh Circuit of Appeals has now been filed, reported IndyStar. Starkey’s lawyer further stated for Pink News:
“‘If we are successful in pursuing the lawsuit then there will be law established that says “Yes, the law does apply to the archdiocese as an employer and they are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation against guidance counselors and other non-ministers of the faith.” So if we are successful in the case, which we fully intend to be, then theoretically that would change the behavior that led us to this place now. Do they want to be a religious organization with their own set of rules or do they want to be educating the public and taking public tax money? They’re wanting it both ways right now and I don’t think that’s a tenable solution.”
DeLaney added in another comment that, “this is the first time that a court anywhere in the United States has found that the ministerial exception applies to guidance counselors.”
In an interview with IndyStar, Starkey describe how her employment experience has impacted her faith and her life:
“‘I loved the community. There was never a day I didn’t wake up with a spark and a bounce in my step. It was lifegiving to me. I feel I grew as the community grew. I did all I could to do right by people. It was my entire adult life. I didn’t just put in time; I went the extra mile. My principal wrote in a letter of recommendation for years that I was among the top 1% of educators with whom he’s ever worked with. So I gave it my best and fully intended to finish my career at Roncalli High School. My principal knew that. That was taken away on the basis of who I am and who I’m married to.”
She also described how her employment situation changed over the years:
“‘It was a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” world and the previous archbishops were very kind and pastoral. It just never was an issue. Certainly the contract has changed overtime. Most of the changes came here in the past few years. I’m not the only person who would be in violation of the contract. The administration has been aware of others that were in violation of the contract. We’re being told it’s not a witch hunt but by saying that again and again, it almost feels like you’re inviting it. Because of who I worked for and how I performed, I didn’t ever think it would come to this.
“I was brought up Catholic and I went to Catholic grade school, Catholic high school, Catholic college. Those were the days of Catholic and social justice and for years at Roncalli. There’s a pastoral way to be and that’s what I experienced for years and years and years.”
The Archdiocese of Indianapolis has had a string of firings based on LGBTQ issues. Roncalli High School fired two other employees, Shelly Fitzgerald and Kelly Fisher, the former for her same-gender marriage and the latter for expressing support for Fitzgerald and Starkey. Elsewhere, Josh Payne-Elliot was fired by Cathedral High School and his discrimination lawsuit was dismissed for unclear reasons. The archdiocese also attempted to fire his husband, Layton Payne-Elliott, from Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School. But Brebeuf refused, prompting Archbishop Charles Thompson to strip the school of its Catholic designation. That decision was suspended by church officials while a canonical trial is before the Vatican.
In cases like these, harm is done not only against Catholic LGBTQ employees, but to their communities as well. Schools are depriving students of their teachers and role models, parishes are losing a breadth of pastoral ministers, and the whole of the Catholic Church is starving itself from the talents, skills, and expressions of love that are unique to LGBTQ persons.
–Elise Dubravec, New Ways Ministry, August 21, 2021