Federal Appeals Court Rules Against LGBTQ+ Church Worker in Discrimination Lawsuit

Lynn Starkey

A U.S. federal appeals court in Indiana has ruled against a former employee at a Catholic high school fired over her same-gender marriage.

After working at Roncalli High School as a guidance counselor for nearly forty years, Lynn Starkey was fired in 2019 due to her same-gender marriage. School officials claimed her marriage violated her contract. Since then, Starkey filed a discrimination lawsuit against the school and the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

In 2021, Judge Richard Young ruled in favor of the school concluding that Starkey “qualified as a minister and that the ministerial exception bars all of Starkey’s claims.” Starkey’s attorney, Kathleen DeLany, expressed concern as she revealed “this is the first time that a court anywhere in the United States has found that the ministerial exception applies to guidance counselors.” Following this decision, an appeal to the 7th Circuit of Appeals was filed.

Now, according to the National Catholic Reporter:

“In dismissing the case, the District Court judge said the school employee’s case did not stand up to the principle of ministerial exception that protects a religious school’s hiring and firing practices from government intrusion.

“The 7th Circuit ruled the lawsuit must be dismissed for the same reason.”

The case of Starkey v. Roncalli High School and the Archdiocese of Indianapolis not only raises questions about the rights and protections of LGBTQ+ employees in Catholic schools, but also the relations between private religious schools receiving government funding. Delany, Starkey’s lawyer, not only communicated their disappointment in this ruling but also stated their intentions to “continue to advocate that government funding not go to private schools that engage in discrimination.”

Starkey had received high praise as a staff member of Roncalli High School. A statement released by the law firm representing her read, in part:

“For 40 years, Lynn Starkey was an award-winning educator at Roncalli High School, who was beloved by students, parents and faculty. Roncalli’s principal repeatedly documented that Lynn was in the top 1% of educators with whom he’s ever worked. Lynn’s reason for pursuing this lawsuit was to help prevent other employees of religious institutions from suffering wrongful discrimination.”

Lynn Starkey is not alone when it comes to being discriminated against for her sexual orientation, both by Roncalli High School and the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. After having worked at the high school for fifteen years, in 2018 Shelly Fitzgerald was told by school officials that “she could resign or dissolve her marriage or risk being fired or not getting her contract renewed” after it was revealed that she was in a same-gender marriage. Fitzgerald was then also fired for the same reasons as Starkey, merely for marrying someone of the same gender. Multiple other firings within the Archdiocese of Indianapolis on the basis of LGBTQ+ identity have been recorded. For instance, Josh Payne-Elliot was fired by Cathedral High School due to his engagement in a same-gender marriage. When filing a discrimination lawsuit his case was dismissed without clear reasoning. 

Not only do lawsuits as such interfere with the material and spiritual well-being of LGBTQ+ church workers, but it also interferes with the lives of the children who have found support from these mentor-like figures. Students who had once received guidance from Starkey have now not only lost a supportive figure in their lives, but are also being told by the school that they attend that their sexual orientation and gender identity can be viewed as unacceptable. Discrimination against church workers only furthers potential internalized issues among students who are just trying to figure out who they are.

Anushah Sajwani (she/her), August 18, 2022

2 replies
  1. Thomas Ellison
    Thomas Ellison says:

    While I understand employer – employee contractual agreements, it does strike me as callous to terminate an employee with 40 years of service. So, ignoring the realities of life ( this employee’s marriage) and with horse blinders firmly affixed, the decision to terminate her and then to spend money on a legal defense of their position seems almost cruel. In such cases, I am reminded of a few things….the sin of hypocrisy..the admonition about judging others….and the story of Jesus speaking to the woman at the well. Others thought it was scandal, Jesus saw her as a woman . A person. Not a threat. Not a scandal. I am willing to wager that the church in all its declartions and positions is the last thing Jesus intended.

  2. Kathy Prainito
    Kathy Prainito says:

    This has got to stop. It makes so sense and yes, is cruel. Hopefully Pope Francis’s Synod will bring about changes or the disillusioned will truly leave.


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