Court upholds right of Catholic school to fire counsellor for loving another woman

Lynn Starkey catholic Roncalli high school Indiana

A federal court has ruled in favour of a Catholic school that ended a counsellor’s employment contract after they found out she was in a same-sex relationship.

Lynn Starkey was a guidance counsellor at Roncalli High School and Archdiocese of Indianapolis – and also had ministerial duties for more than 40 years. In August 2018 Starkey informed the school that she was in a same-sex relationship and had a wife.

This not only violated the churches teachings but also her contract as employees of Roncalli High School are required to sign agreements to uphold church doctrine, both at work and in the home. The school allowed Starkey to finish her contract but did not renew it.

According to IndyStar, in 2019 Lynn 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.

This treatment is contrary to the school handbook that states they are 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.”

Religious institutions can freely discriminate under ‘ministerial exception'(Credit: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

On Thursday (29 July) Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Starkey v Roncalli High School and Archdiocese of Indianapolis that the school had a right to fire the counsellor as her relationship violates the church’s teachings.

Becket Law Group, a non-profit public interest law firm that represented Roncalli, expressed jubilation at the ruling.

“Religious groups have a constitutional right to hire individuals who believe in their faith’s ideals and are committed to their religious mission,” said senior counsel Luke Goodrich.

“Our justice system has consistently ruled that the government cannot intrude on a religious organisation’s choice of who will pass on the faith to the next generation.”

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

This isn’t the first queer person the school has let go. In 2018 Shelly Fitzgerald, another lesbian guidance counsellor at Roncalli High School, was put on administrative leave when an anonymous person tracked down her marriage certificate and sent it to school authorities.

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