Ministerial Exception Covers Catholic School Guidance Counselor

John T. Melcon

In Starkey v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis, No. 1:19-cv-03153 (S.D. Ind. August 11, 2021), a federal court rejected a Catholic school guidance counselor’s employment discrimination suit, ruling her claims were barred by the so-called “ministerial exception”—a First Amendment doctrine that protects religious institutions with respect to internal management decisions. The ruling reaffirms the ministerial exception can apply to administrative employees, not just those in pastoral or teaching roles.

In reaching its conclusion, the court gave considerable weight to the school’s characterization of the guidance counselor role. The job description explained guidance counselors are “ministers of the faith” and “are expressly charged with leading students toward Christian maturity and with teaching the Word of God.” Written testimony from the plaintiff’s colleagues detailed the spiritual activities they performed, including praying with students and providing spiritual encouragement. The court also found the plaintiff performed “important religious functions” for the school. In particular, she served on the Administrative Council, a leadership body responsible for “making the big decisions” relating to the school’s mission and other day-to-day operations.

In an effort to minimize the religious nature of her role, the plaintiff argued her duties mirrored those of guidance counselors at secular schools. The court refused to accept this characterization, holding that any attempt to distinguish between secular guidance and religious guidance in the context of a Catholic school would result in impermissible government entanglement in religious affairs.

Citing a recent Seventh Circuit case, the court held the ministerial exception barred all the plaintiff’s claims, including her hostile work environment claim and her state-law “intentional interference” claims against the Archdiocese. The ruling leaves in place the court’s prior opinion on the non-applicability of Title VII’s religious employer exemption.

While not groundbreaking, the decision offers a reminder that administrative and leadership roles can fall within the ministerial exception where documentation and testimony show religious expectations and duties.