In August 2021, the district court granted summary judgment dismissing Starkey’s employment discrimination suit. The court found that the undisputed facts showed Starkey “performed vital religious duties.” Roncalli High School had entrusted Starkey with the tasks of guiding students as they mature and grow into adulthood, communicating the Catholic faith to students, and helping shape the religious and spiritual environment at the school – all of which are vital religious duties.
A religious school must have the freedom to ensure that an employee’s counseling of adolescents, as well as her example of personal conduct, supports its religiously grounded moral standards. Accordingly, the district court granted summary judgment finding Starkey a “minister” and dismissing her suit under the First Amendment’s ministerial exception. Christian Legal Society (CLS) fully supports that conclusion.
Starkey appealed the district court decision to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. On January 18, 2022, CLS filed an amicus brief in support of Roncalli High School and the Archdiocese of Indiana. CLS’ brief emphasized that, while the district court’s decision was correct and should be affirmed, the Seventh Circuit could also affirm the decision on an alternative ground – the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”), which prohibits the federal government from imposing a substantial burden on religious exercise unless the application of that burden furthers a compelling governmental interest and does so by the least restrictive means. The brief pointed out that whether or not Starkey is a “minister,” the undisputed facts show the religious importance of her job functions. Those facts show that penalizing the Archdiocese for dismissing her would substantially burdens its religious exercise.
On July 28, 2022, the Seventh Circuit upheld the district court decision based on the ministerial exception. The lower court had granted summary judgment dismissing Starkey’s employment discrimination suit, finding for the school and the archdiocese on the basis of the ministerial exception because the undisputed facts showed Starkey performed vital religious duties. Two of the judges on the Seventh Circuit panel agreed with the trial judge that the ministerial exception governed this case, and the third judge in a concurrence thought that the Title VII religious exemption doomed Ms. Starkey’s claim.