The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit quoted an amicus brief by Boyden Gray & Associates on behalf of a group of First Amendment scholars in an opinion that upholds the right of religious schools to structure their communities in accordance with their beliefs. In Starkey v. Roncalli High School and Archdiocese of Indianapolis, the court held that the First Amendment protects the right of a Catholic high school to sever ties with a senior guidance counselor who entered into a civil marriage with a member of the same sex, contrary to the school’s sincere religious beliefs and the terms of that employee’s ministry contract.

As the court explained, the First Amendment guarantees that religious communities, and not just religious individuals, can live out their beliefs free from government interference. The court’s decision turned on the “ministerial exception,” a religious community’s unqualified constitutional right to select the leaders and teachers of its faith. As the court noted, the ministerial exception is only one part of the Constitution’s broad protection of church autonomy, which holds that “churches must have independence in matters of faith and doctrine and in closely linked matters of internal government.” The court quoted the firm’s brief to observe that “the distinction between what falls within the protection of the church autonomy doctrine is not easily reduced to a bright-line rule.” Church autonomy cannot be reduced to a few crabbed categories, but instead offers religious communities broad and robust protections.

Boyden Gray & Associates’ role in Roncalli continues the firm’s successful collaboration with leading members of the legal academy to defend the rights of religious communities. In Fuller Theological Seminary v. Maxon, two seminary students brought Title IX actions for sex discrimination against their school when they were expelled for entering in to civil marriages with members of the same sex. The firm submitted an amicus brief in that case arguing that the church autonomy doctrine protected a seminary’s right to hold its students—future ministers—to a shared religious code, and the Ninth Circuit ruled for the seminary.

The Seventh Circuit’s opinion is available here. The amicus brief is available here.