A federal judge yesterday dismissed an employee’s lawsuit against a Catholic high school for not renewing her contract. Allowing the lawsuit to proceed, the judge said, would violate the First Amendment. The employee alleged that the school had discriminated against her in not rehiring her; the school said they did not renew her contract because she violated the school’s religious tenets.
In this case, Starkey v. Roncalli High School and Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Judge Richard Young ruled that because Ms. Starkey’s job included religious duties and her contract specifically stated that she was acting as a minister, her lawsuit was barred by the “ministerial exception.”
The ministerial exception states that courts may not interfere in employment disputes involving employees who hold religious positions in religious institutions, in order to preserve the religious freedom of those institutions. This doctrine was pronounced by the Supreme Court in a number of decisions, the most recent being Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, in which Agudath Israel and other Orthodox Jewish organizations had submitted an amicus curiae brief urging the Court to adopt a broad interpretation of the ministerial exception.
Agudath Israel of America hailed the court decision as a victory for religious liberty. “As the United States Supreme Court has stated, it is vital for the religious mission of every religious school to be able to decide who will serve as teachers and role models for the students,” said Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Executive Vice President. “To allow courts to question or challenge these decisions would undermine the autonomy of religious schools.”