Federal court affirms archdiocese’s school-employment rights

By Sean Gallagher

Special to The Message

A federal judge has ruled that the Archdiocese of Indianapolis is free to provide an authentic Catholic education to students and families across central and southern Indiana.

It came in an Aug. 11 summary judgment by Judge Richard L. Young of the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Indiana in favor of the archdiocese in Starkey v. Roncalli High School and Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

In the case, Lynn Starkey, a former co-director of guidance at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis, claimed that she experienced illegal discrimination because of her sexual orientation when her employment contract was not renewed in 2018.

Roncalli and the archdiocese, represented in the case by Becket, a Washington-based religious liberty law firm, argued that federal anti-discrimination law did not apply in this case.

In a statement issued by Becket on behalf of the archdiocese, it was noted that “every administrator, teacher and guidance counselor” at Roncalli “signs an agreement to uphold the teachings of the Catholic Church in both their professional and private lives.”

Because Starkey had signed such a contract, it was not renewed when she informed the school that she had entered into a civil same-sex marriage.

Beckett maintained that the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom prohibits the government from compelling the Church to hire educators who reject its teachings for positions in which they are responsible for passing on the faith.

In American religious liberty jurisprudence, this has become known as a “ministerial exception.”

Judge Young agreed that “the ministerial exception covers Starkey’s role as co-director of guidance.” 

“One may reasonably presume that a religious school would expect faith to play a role in that work,” Judge Young wrote, “and Roncalli expressly entrusted Starkey with the responsibility of communicating the Catholic faith to students and fostering spiritual growth.”

On these grounds, and based on a growing precedent in American law regarding religious liberty and the ministerial exception, Judge Young ruled in favor of the archdiocese in the Starkey case.