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Federal Court Allows Catholic School to Fire Teacher in Same-Sex Marriage

December 14th, 2021

A federal judge recently overruled the North Carolina Governor's religious service restrictions, allowing houses of worship to resume indoor services.
A federal court in Indiana recently ruled that a Catholic school could refuse to renew the employment contract of a gay guidance counselor.

The United States District for the Southern District of Indiana recently ruled that a Roman Catholic school and its archdiocese could refuse to renew the employment contract of a guidance counselor. The counselor in question entered into a same-sex marriage after spending years at the school in various capacities ranging from choral director to guidance counselor. Following her termination, the teacher filed a lawsuit against the school based on discrimination on the basis of her sexual orientation. 

Previous Case Law

As part of his summary judgment ruling, the federal judge noted that the employee’s role as guidance counselor fits within the ministerial exception. In arriving at this decision, the judge relied on the United States Supreme Court’s 2020 Our Lady of Guadalupe School and 2012 Hosana-Tabor rulings. Both of these cases address the termination of workers who had acted against teachings advocated by a religious school. 

In Hosana, a church was sued due to alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The school had terminated a teacher who had developed narcolepsy. The Court found that the Catholic school could claim the ministerial exception because the school classified the teacher as a minister within a role unique from many of the church’s members. 

The teacher’s title reflected extensive religious training and her job duties demonstrated various roles that relied on the teacher depicting the church’s message. As a result, the court unanimously ruled that the ministerial exception prevented employment discrimination claims from being made between religious workers and a religious organization.

In Our Lady of Guadalupe, two teachers initiated legal action against the school after they were terminated from their primarily secular positions. While the Catholic school argued that the ministerial exception applied, the teachers argued that it did not since their job did not involve or require religious training or credentialing. In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court ultimately held that the ministerial exception applied for the teachers even though the teachers had not been given the title of minister and little religious training. 

The Court’s Opinion for the Catholic School

The judge noted that one would presume that a Catholic school would expect faith to play a role in instruction and that the teacher was entrusted with the duty of communicating the faith to students. The judge also noted that the counselor functioned in a leadership position in which she helped guide the religious and spiritual environment at the school.

Despite the counselor’s argument that her position involved providing students with secular advice, the worker’s position was tightly interwoven with the school’s educational mission. As such, the judge noted that religious groups have a constitutional right to retain workers who agree with the school’s beliefs and practices. 

The Goal of the Universal Life Church 

The 2020s will likely see various developments for LGBTQ+ rights, much the same way that the previous decade did. The Universal Life Church’s blog focuses on documenting the most noteworthy of these cases.

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