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Catholic Life

Court affirms hiring rights for religious schools

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WASHINGTON — A federal judge ruled Aug. 11 in favor of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, reaffirming its right to provide students and families with an authentic Catholic education. In Starkey v. Roncalli High School and Archdiocese of Indianapolis, a former co-director of guidance at a Catholic high school sued the archdiocese after her contract was not renewed because she entered a same-sex union in violation of her contract and of centuries-old Catholic teaching. Becket defended the archdiocese, arguing that the government is constitutionally prohibited from forcing the Catholic Church to hire educators who reject Catholic teachings while serving in roles entrusted with passing on its faith. The court agreed, ruling that when an employee is “tasked with guiding students as they mature and grow into adulthood,” “[o]ne may reasonably presume that a religious school would expect faith to play a role in that work.”  

Every administrator, teacher and guidance counselor at Roncalli High School signs an agreement to uphold the teachings of the Catholic Church in both their professional and private lives. In August of 2018, Lynn Starkey told Roncalli leadership that she was in a same-sex union in violation of her contract and centuries-old Catholic teaching. The school then explained that it could not renew her contract in light of her opposition to Catholic teaching. Starkey sued both Roncalli and the archdiocese arguing that they had discriminated against her based on her sexual orientation. 

“Today’s ruling is common sense: religious groups have a constitutional right to hire people who agree with their religious beliefs and practices,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “At all levels of the judiciary, courts have made clear that the government has no place interfering with a religious organization’s decision about who can pass on the faith to the next generation.”

The Supreme Court has long recognized that the Constitution forbids secular courts from interfering in important personnel decisions of churches and religious schools. The court’s most recent decision came last year in Becket’s landmark case, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, in which it confirmed the principle of the “ministerial exception,” that religious schools should be free to choose their teachers without government interference. The full Seventh Circuit applied that ruling just last month in Becket’s win in Demkovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Parish. And today, the federal court in Starkey upheld the principle of church autonomy by keeping secular courts out of questions of faith. 

“Many parents make sacrifices so their children can attend Catholic schools that uphold the dignity of every human person and teach the fullness of the Catholic faith,” said Goodrich. “Today’s decision ensures that religious schools can remain faithful to their religious mission.” 

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest legal and educational institute with a mission to protect the free expression of all faiths.

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