Employment Law for Ministries


Court Okays Sexual Orientation Discrimination Lawsuit against Catholic High School

"This case places in stark relief the difficult questions that may arise when applying civil rights laws to religious institutions."

With that remark, a federal district court judge began assessing the respective rights of a female Catholic high school employee who married another woman and her employer. The court's decision offers a concise review of how federal employment laws can apply to a ministry employer.

Starkey worked for decades at the Roncalli Catholic High School in Indianapolis. Roncalli opted not to renew her annual contract in 2019, when Starkey was co-director of the guidance department.

Starkey's position came with common faith-based religious school expectations. For example, her job description specified that she was to be a role model for students in her official and personal conduct and was to support Catholic Church teachings. In particular, her contract stated that she would be in default of her obligations if she was in a relationship contrary to "a valid marriage as seen through the eyes" of the church and exhibited personal conduct or a lifestyle "at variance with" the church's moral or religious stances.

In a letter to Starkey explaining the school's decision not to renew her contract, Roncalli stated that her union with another woman violated her contract and was contrary to church teaching. Starkey responded with a lawsuit against the school claiming that she was discriminated against for her sexual orientation and that her termination violated Title VII and Title IX of the Civil Rights Act.

Roncalli moved to dismiss Starkey's complaint. While the court granted Roncalli's motion in part, it refused to dismiss her claims under Title VII.

Relying on the recent Supreme Court decision in Bostock v. Clayton County (summarized in our June 2020 newsletter), the court observed that Title VII prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. The Court further observed that Title VII contains an exemption for religious organizations—specifically, that the nondiscrimination provisions do not apply to a religious institution "with respect to the employment of individuals of a particular religion to perform work connected with" the employer's work of carrying on its activities. The court determined (as have many others in the past) that the exemption permits discrimination based on religious preferences but does not permit discrimination based on other grounds, such as, say, race or gender.

Roncalli argued that the exemption plainly applied here. The decision to employ persons of a "particular religion" includes the decision to employ only those who share the same religious beliefs; and the school declined to rehire Starkey because her "particular religion," as manifested through her same-sex marriage, was contrary to the church's.

What, the court wondered, happens when the "religious reason" for an employment decision "also implicates another protected class." Noting the lack of precedent exactly on point, the court held that Title VII's religious-employer exemption permits discrimination based on religious preferences alone, not based on both religious preferences "and another class." Accordingly, "if Starkey alleged religious discrimination," the Title VII exemption would bar that claim, "but she alleges sexual orientation discrimination." The court therefore denied Roncalli's motion to dismiss Starkey's Title VII claim. (In addition, the court found that the Title VII claim preempted an additional claim under Title IX, so it did dismiss Starkey's Title IX claim.)

The court's holding is troublesome for many religious employers. For example, a straightforward application of the decision would lead to a conclusion that the religious-employer exemption would not protect a Catholic parish's exclusion of women in leadership positions. While the church's decision to limit the priesthood to males stands on religious principle, that decision also adversely affects women, so the church's stance in that way would violate Title VII's bar on sex discrimination. It seems dubious that Congress intended the religious-organization exemption to apply as narrowly as the court in this case found.

Roncalli will continue to argue that the ministerial exception bars Starkey's lawsuit (see sidebar) and may prevail on that defense before the case goes to trial. If you have any questions about this matter, please contact us.

This summary is provided as an informational tool. It is not intended to be and should not be considered legal advice, and receipt of this information does not establish an attorney-client relationship.