Is It Lawful For Religious Schools To Dismiss LGBTIQ+ Educators?

In the United States, the legality of a religious school dismissing an LGBTIQ+ teacher raises complex questions. A case that has recently brought this issue to the forefront is Lynn Starkey’s situation at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis.

Sexual Orientation-Based Discrimination  

After her same-sex marriage became public knowledge, Starkey was dismissed from her position as a guidance counselor. Alleging sexual orientation-based discrimination, she proceeded to sue both the school and the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

This case was notably covered in a report by NBC News, highlighting the ongoing debate around this complex issue.

Historical Precedents

Starkey’s case is not unique. Over the years, there have been several similar cases involving religious schools and LGBTIQ+ teachers.

For instance, in 2013, Kristen Ostendorf, a teacher at Totino-Grace High School in Minnesota, was fired after she publicly came out as a lesbian during a workshop with colleagues.

Dismissed As A Teacher

In another case, Carla Hale was dismissed from her teaching position at Bishop Watterson High School in Ohio after her mother’s obituary disclosed Hale’s same-sex partner.

Hale filed a complaint with the city of Columbus, which has an ordinance against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

LGBTQ+ Teacher Sued School For Discrimination

Moreover, Matthew Barrett sued Fontbonne Academy, a Catholic girls’ high school in Massachusetts, after his job offer was rescinded upon the school discovering he was in a same-sex marriage.

The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in favor of Barrett three years later, stating the school had engaged in sexual orientation discrimination.

The Legal Intricacies

Understanding the legalities surrounding employment discrimination in religious schools involves a multifaceted analysis of federal and state laws, constitutional rights and executive orders.

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a federal law, forbids employer discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.

However, it includes certain exemptions applicable to religious organizations. For example, if a job requires adherence to a specific religion, religious organizations may lawfully discriminate based on religious affiliation.

The Role Of Religion

While religious schools and organizations are generally allowed to hire individuals who share their faith, they are usually prohibited from discriminating on the grounds of other protected characteristics such as sex, race, or national origin.

The complexities arise when considering the role of religion in defining gender roles and sexual behaviors and the interpretation of “sex” in Title VII.

The Role Of The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court’s interpretation of whether “sex” in Title VII encompasses sexual orientation and gender identity will considerably influence the rights of LGBTIQ+ employees.

Moreover, the ministerial exception to Title VII, which was upheld by the Supreme Court, provides another layer of complexity to this issue.

The State Of U.S. Law In 2023

As of 2023, the legal landscape surrounding the rights of LGBTIQ+ educators in religious schools has seen several significant developments.

In 2020, the Supreme Court ruled in Bostock v. Clayton County that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination ‘because of sex,’ includes discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

This landmark ruling has provided a significant boost to the protections for LGBTIQ+ individuals in the workplace, including educators.

The Debate

However, the extent to which religious organizations, including schools, can claim exceptions to these protections remains a matter of intense debate and litigation.

Notably, the “ministerial exception” — a legal term that allows religious organizations to circumvent certain anti-discrimination laws when hiring employees who perform essential religious functions — has been a key point of contention. 

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Roles That Have A Religious Function

This exception was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2012 Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC case. Some religious institutions have broadened the scope of this exception to include positions like teachers or guidance counselors, arguing that these roles have a religious function because they model and teach religious values to students.

State Variability And The Potential Impact Of The Equality Act

Moreover, while federal law has moved towards greater protections for LGBTIQ+ workers, state laws vary significantly. Some states have robust protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, while others have laws or court rulings allowing religious exemptions to these protections.

Finally, the Equality Act, a piece of legislation that would provide comprehensive protections for LGBTIQ+ individuals across a variety of sectors, including education, has been a major topic in Congress.

A Brighter Future For LGBTQ+ Educators 

As of 2023, the bill has been passed by the House of Representatives but has yet to be approved by the Senate. If passed, the Equality Act would significantly alter the legal landscape for LGBTIQ+ educators in religious schools.

Thus, while there have been significant advancements toward protecting the rights of LGBTIQ+ educators, the interplay between these protections and the rights of religious institutions remains a complex and evolving issue in U.S. law.

This article was produced by TPR Teaching.


Caitriona Maria is an education writer and founder of TPR Teaching, crafting inspiring pieces that promote the importance of developing new skills. For 7 years, she has been committed to providing students with the best learning opportunities possible, both domestically and abroad. Dedicated to unlocking students' potential, Caitriona has taught English in several countries and continues to explore new cultures through her travels.

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Joe B
Joe B
1 month ago

No! It is NOT “lawful” for ANY religious teaching in PUBLIC schools. It is unconstitutional. Period.