Federal Court Bars Guidance Counselor’s Title VII Claims

Case shows the importance of having all faculty-related handbooks, job descriptions, and contracts reviewed by legal counsel.

Key Point 8-10.1 The civil courts have consistently ruled that the First Amendment prevents them from applying employment laws to the relationship between a church and a minister.

Update: A federal appeals court has ruled that a guidance counselor at a Catholic high school was a “minister” and that the First Amendment’s “ministerial exception” barred her claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for discrimination, retaliation, and hostile work environment.

In recent legal development out of Florida, Richard Hammar explains the ins and outs of a case in which the court finally said no to hearing a property dispute between a church and its governing body.

‘Morals Clause’

A Catholic school (“School”) in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis had, as its mission, “to provide, in concert with parents, parish, and community, an educational opportunity which seeks to form Christian leaders in body, mind, and spirit.”

A woman (“Plaintiff”) began working at the School as a guidance counselor.

She was not a practicing Catholic. As part of her job, Plaintiff served on the School’s main leadership body, the Administrative Council.

The Council meets weekly to address the School’s “day-to-day operations and spiritual life.”

The Administrative Council also makes decisions related to the school’s religious mission. This includes arranging logistics for an all-school liturgy and qualifications for a student to serve as a eucharistic minister.

The School used a one-year employment contract for teachers and guidance counselors.

For more than 30 years, the School included a “morals clause” in those contracts.

From 2007 to 2017, the school used a contract titled, “School Teacher Contract.” It required employees to refrain from “any personal conduct or lifestyle at variance with the policies of the Archdiocese or the moral or religious teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.”

Failure to do so would result in “default under the contract.”

An employee was also in default if she engaged in “cohabitation (living together) without being legally married.”

The school principal and the pastor could “suspend or terminate the employment” of a defaulted employee at his or her discretion.

‘Teaching Ministry Contract’

For the 2017-2018 school year, the School instituted a new employment agreement entitled “Teaching Ministry Contract.”

It contained the same morals clause and attached a Ministry Description detailing the responsibilities of the position.

In May 2018, Plaintiff signed a contract titled, “School Guidance Counselor Ministry Contract,” which came with the “Archdiocese of Indianapolis Ministry Description.”

The updated contract included a similar morals clause, but now stated that an employee was in default if the employee were to engage in a relationship “contrary to a valid marriage as seen through the eyes of the Catholic Church,” which defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

The accompanying Ministry Description defined the primary functions of a school guidance counselor in part as:

Adhering to mission and within the school’s supervisory structure, including the school principal and pastor or high school principal and president, the school guidance counselor will collaborate with parents and fellow professional educators to foster the spiritual, academic, social, and emotional growth of the children entrusted in his/her care.

The Ministry Description also labeled guidance counselors as “ministers of the faith,” and stated that their position included “facilitating faith formation.”

A guidance counselor’s responsibilities included:

1. Communicating the Catholic faith to students and families through implementation of the school’s guidance curriculum, academic course planning, college and career planning, administration of the school’s academic programs, and by offering direct support to individual students and families in efforts to foster the integration of faith, culture, and life.

2. Praying with and for students, families, and colleagues. Participating in and celebrating liturgies and prayer services as appropriate.

3. Teaching and celebrating Catholic traditions and all observances in the Liturgical Year.

4. Modeling the example of Jesus, the Master Teacher, in what He taught, how He lived, and how He treated others.

5. Conveying the Church’s message and carrying out its mission by modeling a Christ-centered life.

6. Participating in religious instruction and Catholic formation, including Christian services, offered at the school. Non-Catholic school guidance counselors are expected to participate to the fullest extent possible (e.g., non-Catholics would come forward to receive a blessing instead of Holy Communion in the Catholic Mass).

By signing the contract, Plaintiff acknowledged that she received the Ministry Description and agreed to fulfill “the duties and responsibilities” of the agreement.

But she insisted that these documents did not describe either her or the school’s actual conduct.

The School did not renew the Plaintiff’s employment contract based on her civil union with another woman in violation of the Catholic Church’s moral teachings.

The Plaintiff filed a Title VII claim.

A federal court in Indiana initially said the Title VII case did not violate the church autonomy doctrine (also known as the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine) and could proceed to a trial.

Before it could, the School filed a “motion for summary judgment,” reiterating its belief the ministerial exception applied to the case.

The federal court agreed and granted the School’s motion.

The Plaintiff appealed.

‘Expected to carry out the school’s religious mission’

The federal appeals court affirmed that the ministerial exception barred all of the Plaintiff’s claims:

As the Co-Director of Guidance and a member of the Administrative Council, Plaintiff was one of the school leaders responsible for the vast majority of the school’s daily ministry, education, and operations. She was expected to take part in the school’s day-to-day operations, which included responsibilities that conveyed the Catholic faith to students, such as leading prayer over the public address system more than once. Her employment agreements and faculty handbooks recognized these job duties and responsibilities by stating that she was expected to carry out the school’s religious mission. . . . Her job included facilitating faith formation by communicating the Catholic religion to students, “modeling a Christ-centered life,” and “praying with and for students.” According to the Archdiocese’s Ministry Description, guidance counselors were “to foster the spiritual, academic, social and emotional growth of the children entrusted in his/her care.”

What this Title VII case means for church schools and church school leaders

This Title VII case supports the application of the ministerial exception to guidance counselors in church schools.

But, as the courts here noted, such a conclusion is dependent on the text of faculty handbooks, faculty contracts, and other pertinent documents. The federal court and the federal appellate court both determined the Plaintiff was a minister because she was entrusted with communicating the Catholic faith to the school’s students and guiding the school’s religious mission. The ministerial exception thus barred all of her claims at the federal and state levels.

To ensure the application of the ministerial exception to school staff, these important documents should be reviewed by legal counsel, and modified as appropriate.

Starkey v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese, 41 F.4th 931 (7th Cir. 2022).

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