Employee in Same-Sex Civil Union Sues Religious School

The “church autonomy doctrine” did not bar the plaintiff’s claims of discrimination, says court.

Update. After this decision, the religious school sought a “motion for summary judgment” in its favor, again arguing the ministerial exception applied. This time the federal court granted the motion, ruling that the ministerial exception barred it from resolving the former employee’s discrimination claims. Read Richard Hammar’s full analyis of this ruling and what it means for churches and church-run schools.

Key Point 8-12.01 Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers engaged in commerce and having at least 15 employees from discriminating in any employment decision on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender, or religion. Religious organizations are exempt from the ban on religious discrimination, but not from the other prohibited forms of discrimination.

A federal court in Indiana ruled that a female counselor at a Catholic school whose employment was terminated because of her civil union with another woman could sue the school for discrimination so long as her position was not “of substantial religious importance.”


A Catholic school did not renew the employment contract of its Co-Director of Guidance Counseling (the “plaintiff”) based on her civil union with another woman in violation of the Catholic Church’s moral teachings.

The plaintiff had worked for the school and Archdiocese for 39 years and held several positions, including choral director and religion, music, and drama teacher. She also served as a guidance counselor from 1998 until 2007, and as Co-Director of Guidance Counseling from 2007 until her termination in 2019. In 2017, the Archdiocese and school adopted a “School Guidance Counselor Ministry Contract” and an “Archdiocese Ministry Description” for school guidance counselors.

Quoting from the job description, the court said:

The job description specified that “[a]s role models for students, the personal conduct of every school guidance counselor . . . must convey and be supportive of the teachings of the Catholic Church,” which includes “the belief that all persons are called to respect human sexuality and its expression in the Sacrament of Marriage as a sign of God’s love and fidelity to His Church.”

The court stated that “[a]n employee would be in default of her contract if she violated the Church’s teachings on marriage.”

Quoting directly from the contract, the court said:

“The School Guidance Counselor shall be deemed to be in default under this contract in the event of any breach of duty hereunder, including, but not limited to . . . [r]elationships that are contrary to a valid marriage as seen through the eyes of the Catholic Church; and . . . any personal conduct or lifestyle at variance with the policies of the Archdiocese or the moral or religious teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.”

Additionally, as pointed out by the court, the Code of Canon Law of the Catholic Church instructs that marriage is a “covenant” between a “man and a woman,” and that homosexual acts are “contrary to natural law” and “do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity.”

The church asked the court to dismiss the suit

In May of 2019, stated the court, the school “officially notified [the plaintiff] by letter that her contract would not be renewed for the following school year. The letter stated that [her] ‘civil union is a violation [of her] contract and contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church.’”

The plaintiff responded by suing the school and Archdiocese (the church defendants) for unlawful discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII generally bans employment discrimination by employers with 15 or more employees on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, or religion.

The church defendants asked the court to dismiss the case on the ground that Title VII permits religious organizations to discriminate in employment decisions on the basis of religion. The court declined to do so.

While the court conceded that religious organizations can discriminate on the basis of religion in their employment decisions, this exemption did not apply to the other forms of discrimination prohibited by Title VII (i.e., race, color, national origin, sex). As a result, the plaintiff’s claim of discrimination based on sexual orientation (a form of sex discrimination) was not barred by the religious exemption.

The court noted that the central question was: “Does a religious reason for an employment decision bar a plaintiff’s Title VII claim when the religious reason also implicates another protected class [i.e., sex]?”

It concluded:

[The church] defendants’ argument would allow a religious employer to convert any claim of discrimination on the basis of one of the protected classes under Title VII to a case of religious discrimination, so long as there was a religious reason behind the employment decision. This would effectively strip employees of religious institutions of all Title VII protections, if the employer’s religion clashed with the employee’s protected class status.

The court addressed the “church autonomy doctrine”

The court observed:

Consider a religious employer that genuinely believes the Bible forbids interracial marriage. Under the church defendants’ interpretation of [Title VII] that employer would be free to terminate an employee who married someone of a different race. Such an expansive reading of [Title VII] would sweep far more broadly than what Congress intended, as evidenced by its repeated refusal to completely exempt religious institutions from Title VII. There is no principled difference between that hypothetical employment decision and this case. Just as that employer would be subject to Title VII’s prohibition on racial discrimination, defendants are subject to Title VII’s prohibition on sexual orientation discrimination.

The court rejected the church defendants’ argument that the plaintiff’s claims were barred by the church autonomy doctrine:

[The church autonomy doctrine] ensures that churches have the “power to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.” Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171, 186, 132 S.Ct. 694, 181 L.Ed.2d 650 (2012) (quoting Kedroff v. Saint Nicholas Cathedral of Russian Orthodox Church in North America, 344 U.S. 94, 116, 73 S.Ct. 143, 97 L.Ed. 120 (1952)). “This does not mean that religious institutions enjoy a general immunity from secular laws, but it does protect their autonomy with respect to internal management decisions that are essential to the institution’s central mission. And a component of this autonomy is the selection of the individuals who play certain key roles.” Our Lady of Guadalupe Sch. v. Morrissey-Berru,_U.S._, 140 S. Ct. 2049, 2060, 207 L.Ed.2d 870 (2020).

The court again quoted from the US Supreme Court’s decision in Hosanna-Tabor: “Religious autonomy means that religious authorities must be free to determine who is qualified to serve in positions of substantial religious importance.”

The church defendants insisted that they considered school guidance counselors to be ministers of the faith since they “facilitate faith formation in several ways, including praying with students, teaching and celebrating Catholic traditions, and conveying the Church’s message and modeling a Christ-centered life.” But the plaintiff disputed this characterization of her role.

She claimed that “her job duties and responsibilities as a guidance counselor did not include any religious or teaching duties.” She claimed that “she never performed any important religious duties for the church,” and asserted that “her role as guidance counselor did not include leading prayer or other religious services, nor did it include integrating religious teachings into her interactions with students.”

The court concluded that a “factual dispute” existed between the parties concerning the nature of the plaintiff’s job duties, and therefore it was inappropriate to dismiss the case without further factual development.

What this means for churches

The court conceded that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 permits religious organizations to discriminate in employment decisions on the basis of religion, but it concluded that this exemption did not apply to the other forms of discrimination prohibited by Title VII (i.e., race, color, national origin, sex).

As a result, the plaintiff’s claim of discrimination based on sexual orientation (a form of sex discrimination) was not barred by the religious exemption.

However, the court recognized that the church autonomy doctrine would prohibit it from litigating the plaintiff’s claim of sexual orientation discrimination if the plaintiff’s position in the school was “a position of substantial religious importance.” And, since the evidence regarding the religious nature of the plaintiff’s duties was disputed, the court ordered the case to proceed to trial where the nature of the plaintiff’s position could be fully explored and determined.

Starkey v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese, 2019 WL 7019362 (S.D. Ind., 2020)

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