Woodring v. Jackson County

A multi-denominational coalition that serves its community and brings people together

The Brownstown Area Ministerial Association is a coalition of diverse Christian ministers in Jackson County, Indiana, that serves its community through prayer, fellowship, outreach, and direct aid. Twice each year, the Ministerial Association holds services to encourage Christian fellowship and raise funds for its direct aid program, which includes a community food pantry and direct aid for those who need temporary assistance with rent, mortgage, and utility bills.

In 2003, the Ministerial Association purchased, with broad community support, a nativity scene to display in front of the Jackson County Courthouse during the Christmas season. In addition to commemorating the Christmas season, over the years the nativity scene has become a staple in the local “Hometown Christmas celebration.” And the area around the display—replete with a Christmas tree, presents, and numerous other holiday fixtures—serves as a gathering place for the community, encouraging people to socialize and support nearby local businesses (the Chamber of Commerce is even a sponsor).

A longstanding tradition at risk

For almost two decades, the Brownstown nativity scene has been displayed without incident. But in 2018, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to the county asking for the nativity to be removed because of its religious symbolism. Not long after, the ACLU of Indiana sued the county on behalf of an out-of-town individual who passed by the display and felt offended by it.

On April 29, 2020, the district court ruled against Jackson County, holding that the display violated the Establishment Clause. The County appealed to the Seventh Circuit.

Recognizing the role of religion in our nation’s traditions—past and present

 On August 5, 2020, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Ministerial Association, owners of the nativity scene. The brief explains why the First Amendment permits the government to include religious symbols and practices in its annual holiday traditions—because they are a part of our nation’s rich religious history that has long been celebrated in Jackson County. Requiring governments to strip the religious elements from Christmas and to only celebrating the secular would not only deny the religious roots of the holiday, it would sanction government hostility to religion by favoring the non-religious over the religious.

In striking down the display, the district court applied the much criticized and now specifically rejected  Lemon test. But, as Becket’s brief explains, the Supreme Court held in American Legion v. American Humanist Association (June 20, 2019) that the Lemon test no longer applies to religious displays. Instead, the Establishment Clause must be interpreted to allow governments to celebrate our history and traditions—not to scrub the public square of religious imagery. Since American Legion, three courts of appeals have affirmed this principle (twice in Becket’s own cases); the Seventh Circuit will likely be the fourth.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Public square: Religion is a natural part of human culture and has a natural place in the public square. The government is not required to strip the public square of important symbols just because they are religious. Instead, the government can and should recognize the important role of religion in our history and culture.

Starkey v. Roncalli High School and Archdiocese of Indianapolis

Commitment to Catholic education

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis has been committed to learning, teaching, and sharing the Catholic faith in central and southern Indiana for over 175 years. In addition to providing tens of millions of dollars in vital social services, the Archdiocese operates a number of schools that provide a safe, high-quality education to thousands of low-income Indiana students. The results speak for themselves, with over 90% of all graduates going on to college, far outstripping public schools.

While Catholic schools provide a top-notch education, their central purpose is to transmit the Catholic faith to the next generation. Thus, it is crucial that educators in Catholic schools—especially administrators, teachers, and guidance counselors—respect and promote the Church’s teachings. For this reason, all educators at Roncalli sign an agreement to uphold the teachings of the Catholic Church in both their professional and private lives—serving as examples of the faith to both the students and the community alike.

A conflict of commitment

As Co-Director of Guidance at Roncalli High School, Lynn Starkey was responsible for communicating the Catholic faith to students and families, and advising students both practically and spiritually as they discerned their vocational path at and after Roncalli. In August of 2018, Starkey told Roncalli leadership that she was in, and intended to remain in, a same-sex marriage in violation of her contract and of Catholic teaching. When the time came to renew her contract, her fellow school leaders explained that they could not do so while she was living in opposition to Catholic teaching. Ms. Starkey sued both the school and the Archdiocese arguing that they had discriminated against her based on her sexual orientation.

Educating hearts and minds

Catholic education is designed to holistically form the student in heart, mind, and body. Accordingly, Catholic educators and guidance professionals are expected to go beyond simply teaching algebra, or helping students fill out college applications. They are charged with modeling a Christ-centered life and promoting the teachings of the Catholic Church in word and deed—in short, they are ministers of the faith to their students. If an educator chooses to live in a manner which demonstrates disagreement with Church teaching, that educator cannot properly communicate the faith to his or her students.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution grants church schools like Roncalli the right to choose who teaches the faith to the next generation, free from government interference. The U.S. Supreme Court most recently articulated this doctrine, called the ministerial exception, in the unanimous 2012 decision Hosanna-Tabor, which protected a Lutheran church school’s right to choose its teachers. Becket is defending the school’s First Amendment right to choose faithful teachers under the ministerial exception.

Next Steps

After the lawsuit was filed, a federal district court ruled in favor of Roncalli and the Archdiocese, saying that when an employee is “tasked with guiding students as they mature and grow into adulthood,” “[o]ne may reasonably presume that a religious school would expect faith to play a role in that work.” Starkey appealed the lower court’s decision. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral argument on May 16, 2022. 

On July 28, 2022, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the ruling in favor of Roncalli and the Archdiocese. The court said Starkey “was entrusted with communicating the Catholic faith to the school’s students and guiding the school’s religious mission.” Thus, the Constitution protected the school’s right to choose who would carry out that role.

Roncalli High School and the Archdiocese of Indianapolis are also represented by Wooton Hoy LLC.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Religious Communities— Churches and religious organizations have a right to live, teach, and govern in accordance with the tenets of their faith. When the government unjustly interferes in internal church affairs, the separation of church and state is threatened. The First Amendment ensures a church’s right to self-definition and free association.

Fitzgerald v. Roncalli High School and Archdiocese of Indianapolis

Commitment to Catholic education

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis has been committed to learning, teaching, and sharing the Catholic faith in central and southern Indiana for over 175 years. In addition to providing tens of millions of dollars in vital social services, the Archdiocese operates a number of schools that provide a safe, high-quality education to thousands of low-income Indiana students. The results speak for themselves, with over 90% of all graduates going on to college, far outstripping public schools.

While Catholic schools provide a top-notch education, their central purpose is to transmit the Catholic faith to the next generation. Thus, it is crucial that educators in Catholic schools—especially administrators, teachers, and guidance counselors—respect and promote the Church’s teachings. For this reason, all educators at Roncalli sign an agreement to uphold the teachings of the Catholic Church in both their professional and private lives—serving as examples of the faith to both the students and the community alike.

A conflict of commitment

As Co-Director of Guidance at Roncalli High School, Shelly Fitzgerald was responsible for communicating the Catholic faith to students and families, and advising students both practically and spiritually as they discerned their vocational path at and after Roncalli. In August of 2018, Fitzgerald told Roncalli leadership that she was in, and intended to remain in, a same-sex marriage in violation of her contract and of Catholic teaching. When the time came to renew her contract, her fellow school leaders explained that they could not do so while she was living in opposition to Catholic teaching. Ms. Fitzgerald sued both the school and the Archdiocese, arguing that they had discriminated against her based on her sexual orientation.

Educating hearts and minds

Catholic education is designed to holistically form the student in heart, mind, and body. Accordingly, Catholic educators and guidance professionals are expected to go beyond simply teaching algebra, or helping students fill out college applications. They are charged with modeling a Christ-centered life and promoting the teachings of the Catholic Church in word and deed—in short, they are ministers of the faith to their students. If an educator chooses to live in a manner which demonstrates disagreement with Church teaching, that educator cannot properly communicate the faith to his or her students.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution grants church schools like Roncalli the right to choose who teaches the faith to the next generation, free from government interference, under a doctrine called the ministerial exception. The U.S. Supreme Court most recently articulated this doctrine in the unanimous 2012 decision Hosanna-Tabor, which protected a Lutheran church school’s right to choose its teachers. Here, Becket is defending the church’s First Amendment right to choose faithful teachers under the ministerial exception.

This case is currently in the Southern District of Indiana, where Roncalli and the Archdiocese are also represented by Jay Mercer of Fitzwater Mercer. Becket is arguing that both federal law and the First Amendment protect religious schools’ right to make hiring decisions based on shared religious doctrine.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Religious Communities— Churches and religious organizations have a right to live, teach, and govern in accordance with the tenets of their faith. When the government unjustly interferes in internal church affairs, the separation of church and state is threatened. The First Amendment ensures a church’s right to self-definition and free association.

 

Payne-Elliott v. Archdiocese of Indianapolis

Commitment to Catholic education

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis has been committed to teaching the Catholic faith and serving central and southern Indiana for over 175 years. In addition to providing tens of millions of dollars in vital social services, the Archdiocese operates a number of schools that provide a safe, high-quality education to thousands of low-income Indiana students.

The purpose of these schools is not only to provide a top-notch education, but to transmit the Catholic faith to the next generation. Thus, it is of particular importance that educators in Catholic schools respect and promote the Church’s teachings. This is why, when they are hired, all educators in the Archdiocese sign an agreement to uphold the teachings of the Catholic Church in both their professional and private lives—serving as examples of the faith to both the students and the community alike.

A broken agreement

In 2017, Joshua Payne-Elliott, a teacher at Cathedral Catholic High School, entered a same-sex civil union in violation of his employment agreement and centuries of Catholic teaching. For almost two years, the Archdiocese engaged in discussion with Cathedral High School about the best course of action based on Catholic teaching. In the end, the Archdiocese informed Cathedral that if it wanted to remain affiliated with the Catholic Church, it could not continue employing teachers who lived in defiance of Church teaching.

Wishing to remain a Catholic school, Cathedral separated from Mr. Payne-Elliott. Mr. Payne-Elliott then sued the Archdiocese in state court, arguing that it unfairly interfered in his agreement with the school.

Defending church autonomy

The Supreme Court has long recognized that secular courts have no business interfering in matters of church discipline or internal church governance. As the Indiana Supreme Court put it a century ago, “No power save that of the church can rightfully declare who is a Catholic.” Accordingly, Becket is defending the Archdiocese, arguing that the government cannot punish the Archdiocese for telling a Catholic school what rules it needed to follow in order to remain a Catholic school.

On May 7, 2021, the Marion Superior Court of Indiana agreed and dismissed the case, ruling in favor of the Archdiocese. The Indiana Court of Appeals, however, reversed, permitting the lawsuit to proceed. Now, Becket has asked the Indiana Supreme Court to step in, vindicate its First Amendment rights, and restore the trial court’s dismissal, preventing Indiana courts from becoming entangled in fundamentally religious disputes. The Indiana Supreme Court heard argument in the case on June 28, 2022

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Religious Communities—Churches and religious organizations have a right to live, teach, and govern in accordance with the tenets of their faith. When the government unjustly interferes in internal church affairs, the separation of church and state is threatened. The First Amendment ensures a church’s right to self-definition and free association.

Meredith v. Daniels

In 2011, Indiana enacted a school choice program called the Choice Scholarship Program. The law help families of lesser means send their children to private schools of their choice and avoid failing public schools. But teachers’ unions are fighting a furious rearguard action against it, using 19th Century anti-Catholic laws (called Blaine Amendments) to argue that the program violates the Indiana Constitution by providing “aid” to religious schools.

The plaintiffs lost in trial court and the Indiana Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

In April 2012, Becket filed an amicus brief in the Indiana Supreme Court arguing that Indiana’s constitution should not be interpreted to shut down the Choice Scholarship Program. The Blaine Amendments were adopted in a time of anti-Catholic agitation, just before the notoriously anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party came to power in the Indiana Legislature. The amendment was therefore custom-designed to promote Protestant “common schools” and keep out Catholics, Jews, and others. Because of its bigoted origins, the Blaine Amendment is tainted law and cannot be used to shut down the Choice Scholarship Program. Becket filed the brief with co-counsel Kevin Koons of Kroger, Gardis & Regas in Indianapolis.

“Apparently it isn’t enough that the teachers’ unions want to deny a future to the children of Indiana, they also want to take us back to the bad old days when anti-Catholics ran the Indiana public schools,” says Becket Deputy General Counsel Eric Rassbach. “Kids who attend religious schools should be able to apply for state scholarships on the same terms as everyone else, not sent to the back of the bus. These discriminatory laws must be stopped. If they don’t end in Indiana, a terrible precedent will be set for the entire nation.”

Indiana’s Office of the Attorney General defended the state’s program.

Hinrichs v. Bosma

For 188 years, the Indiana House of Representatives had a long-standing tradition of opening each day of legislative business with a prayer. These prayers were offered by local chaplains and clergymen from a variety of faiths. In 2005, several Indiana taxpayers filed suit against the legislature claiming that allowing “overtly sectarian prayers” was unconstitutional because it violated the Establishment Clause. The district court ruled in their favor.

Becket filed a friend-of-the-court to the Seventh Circuit criticizing the lower court’s decision that the Establishment Clause prohibits “sectarian” prayer at the Indiana legislature, but allows “non-sectarian” prayer. Our brief demonstrated to the judges the historical pedigree of the term “sectarian” to help realign its definition with its original connotation.

The Seventh Circuit then overturned the lower court’s decision.

Winston & Strawn LLP represented the Indiana legislature.

*Photo: First Prayer in Congress, September 1774, by: H.B. Hall.  Used by permission