Indiana Court Rules Against Fired LGBTQ Church Worker Citing Ministerial Exception

Lynn Starkey

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 IndyStarStarkey’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

3 replies
  1. Thomas Ellison
    Thomas Ellison says:

    What a sad state of affairs. A woman who worked for the Archdiocese for forty years can be dismissed for doing something the law allows. A small goup of men controls so much of what the Catholic Church represents. The notion that a guidance counselor is a ministerial role is a stretch. How many times have we heard that ‘we’ are the church .That seems to be the case only if one plays the old men’s game very carefully. I hope the appeal is more favorable to Ms. Starkey.

    Reply
  2. Tony Spence
    Tony Spence says:

    This is sad. LGBT students have very few role models to help build a healthy, happy path to adulthood. However, since the SCOTUS Hosnana-Tabor v. EEOC decision establishing the ministerial exception in church schools and other religious institutions, lower courts are almost bound to follow this precedent. The solution, of course, is for the church to examine the lives and experiences of LGBT Catholics more deeply and rethink how it responds to Catholics like Mrs. Starkey, who are committed daily to guiding the young Catholics. To all LGBT Catholics really.

    Reply
  3. DON E SIEGAL
    DON E SIEGAL says:

    Fired LGBTQ Church Worker Citing Ministerial Exception

    Until the court declares Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrissey together with St. James School v. Biel flawed decisions, these firings will continue to be supported by the courts. These cases provided a very ridged determination of when the ministerial exemption applies and the employee can be fired for any reason, even one that is not religious. In these cases, one because of age and the other because of a cancer diagnosis.

    Prior to these rulings, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC was the president. Justice Sotomayor noted in her dissent that the decision in Our Lady of Guadalupe, “ignores the applicable standard of review, and collapses Hosanna-Tabor’s careful analysis into a single consideration: whether a church thinks its employees play an important religious role. Because that simplistic approach has no basis in law and strips thousands of schoolteachers of their legal protections, I respectfully dissent.”

    “Put another way (and as the Court repeats throughout today’s opinion), Hosanna-Tabor declined to adopt a ‘rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister.’ Rather, Hosanna-Tabor focused on four “circumstances” to determine whether a fourth-grade teacher, Cheryl Perich, was employed at a Lutheran school as a “minister”: (1) ‘the formal title given [her] by the Church,’ (2) ‘the substance reflected in that title,’ (3) ‘her own use of that title,’ and (4) ‘the important religious functions she performed for the Church.’ Confirming that the ministerial exception applies to a circumscribed sub-category of faith leaders, the Court analyzed those four “factors,” to situate Perich as a minister within the Lutheran Church’s structure.”

    I don’t envision that happening any time soon given the present make-up of the court.

    Reply

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