Court Upholds Religious School’s Employment Freedom

Jul 18, 2023

CHICAGO, IL – A unanimous federal appeals court recently upheld the right of a religious school to make employment decisions consistent with core religious beliefs. A three-judge panel ruled that Roncalli High School under the Archdiocese of Indianapolis was entitled to the ministerial exception and was within its right when it fired a guidance counselor who revealed she was in a “same-sex marriage” contrary to the school’s biblical views on marriage.

In 2019, the Catholic Roncalli High School chose not to renew the contract for its co-director of guidance after she had notified the school the previous year that she was in a same-sex marriage, which ran contrary to her contract to uphold the school’s mission that marriage is between “one man and one woman.” Shortly thereafter, the counselor sued Roncalli contending that the school violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by firing her for being in a same-sex marriage.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed that claim, stating the ministerial exception allows religious institutions to determine their own employment guidelines for employees whose jobs involve religious duties or ministry.

The Court wrote “employment discrimination suits [are barred] ‘when the employer is a religious group and the employee is one of the group’s ministers.’ This is what has long been called ‘the ministerial exception.’… As the [Supreme] Court explained, ‘[requiring] a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision… Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs.’” 

The Court continued, “In determining whether an employee served a religious role, we show deference to the church… All arrows point one way… A religious school is entitled to limit its staff to people who will be role models by living the life prescribed by the faith.” 

This ruling marks the second time in a year this Court has ruled in favor of Roncalli High School. Also in 2018, the school declined to renew a different counselor’s contract for the exact same reason. Notably, the Indiana Supreme Court in 2022 also ruled in favor of another school in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis upholding the school’s decision to terminate a teacher for violating his employment agreement and failing to uphold the school’s religious teaching on same-sex marriage.

Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, “This commonsense ruling protects a fundamental religious liberty of faith-based organizations to employ people who align with their mission. The ministerial exception allows religious institutions to decide who to employ to represent the organization.”

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