Catholic school can legally fire teacher for being in same-sex marriage, court rules

Lynn Starkey catholic Roncalli high school Indiana

A federal court has ruled that it is perfectly fine for a Catholic Indiana school to fire a teacher simply because she is in a same-sex marriage.

Lynn Starkey had taught and worked as a guidance counsellor at Roncalli High School, Indianapolis, for nearly 40 years when she was fired in 2019 because she has a wife.

The school’s handbook declares that Roncalli High School is a “welcoming, Christian community”, and that for students, “language and/or behaviour that is racist, sexist, homophobic or ethnically degrading is not acceptable and would be grounds for disciplinary action”.

But these guidelines apparently do not apply to staff, and Starkey was told her employment would end because her marriage was a breach of her contract with the school, which is run by the Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

According to IndyStar, in 2019 Starkey filed a lawsuit alleging that the archdiocese and Roncalli High School had subjected her to a hostile work environment and discriminated against her on the basis of her sexual orientation.

Although Indianapolis has an ordinance prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, the Catholic school argued that it can discriminate under a “ministerial exception” laid out by a 2020 Supreme Court ruling.

On Wednesday (11 August) federal Judge Richard L Young ruled that Starkey role “falls within the ministerial exception”, and wrote in his judgement: “One may reasonably presume that a religious school would expect faith to play a role in that work, and Roncalli expressly entrusted Starkey with the responsibility of communicating the Catholic faith to students and fostering spiritual growth.

“Starkey also served in a senior leadership role in which she helped shape the religious and spiritual environment at the school and guided the school on its religious mission.”

He added: “When the state interferes with these types of employment decisions, it violates both the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment.”

Kathleen DeLaney, the attorney representing Starkey, said she and her client were “disappointed” by the ruling.

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.”

The same Indiana Catholic school has also fired another employee for being gay

Shelly Fitzgerald, another lesbian guidance counsellor at Roncalli High School, was put on administrative leave in 2018 when an anonymous person tracked down her marriage certificate and sent it to school authorities.

Fitzgerald’s case led to global media attention, and she even appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show to talk about her experience.

The school later defended their decision, saying she is not a good “role model” for students.