By / Aug 16

Last week, in the case of Starkey v. Roncalli High School and Archdiocese of Indianapolis, a federal court in Indiana ruled in favor of the Indianapolis Archdiocese, upholding its right to “provide students and families with an authentic Catholic education.” Along with other recent positive rulings, this latest decision is yet another win reaffirming the rights of individuals and institutions seeking to exercise fidelity to their religious beliefs without government infringing on their constitutional rights. This decision is good news for religious schools, the faculty, and families who send their children to those schools.

What was the case about?

In August 2018, Lynn Starkey, a former co-director of guidance at Roncalli High School, informed school leadership that “she was in, and intended to remain in, a same-sex marriage in violation of her contract and of Catholic teaching.” Upon learning of Starkey’s same-sex marriage, Roncalli administration “declined to renew her employment contract on the grounds that her marriage violated Catholic teachings.” Alleging discrimination, along with a list of other infractions, Starkey then sued Roncalli and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

What led to the favorable ruling?

Ultimately, the court made its decision based on an important legal doctrine –– one favorable to the Archidiocese. Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, stated that it’s a matter of “common sense: religious groups have a right to hire people who agree with their religious beliefs and practices.” The long-standing consensus of the Supreme Court (and lower courts) has been and, with this ruling, clearly remains that “the Constitution forbids secular courts from interfering in important personnel decisions of churches and religious schools.

As outlined in a case detail produced by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, “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,” a fact that necessarily invoked the principle of the ministerial exception.

The ministerial exception was one of the most significant factors at play in this case for several reasons: Roncalli High School is a private religious school; Starkey had a consequential role in advising students according to Catholic orthodoxy; and “Every administrator, teacher, and guidance counselor at Roncalli High School signs an agreement to uphold the teaching of the Catholic Church in both their professional and private lives.”

What is the ministerial exception?

The ministerial exception is a constitutional protection that bars the government from applying employment discrimination laws to religious organizations. To allow the government to control the hiring practices of religious organizations would infringe on the Free Exercise rights of religious organizations to operate independent of government involvement. Though the ministerial exception is not explicitly stated in the Constitution, it is grounded in both religious clauses of the First Amendment.

In its June 2020 decision in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morissey Beru (in which the ERLC filed an amicus brief cited in the court’s ruling), the Supreme Court held that there is no rigid formula to determine if the ministerial exception applies. Rather, the court looks at a variety of factors surrounding the individual’s employment including, but not limited to: official title, religious training, religious credentials, a source of religious instruction, and whether the duties played a role in teaching the religious organization’s message and conveying its mission.

In contrast to the recent ruling in DeWeese-Boyd v. Gordon College, in which it was decided that the ministerial exception did not apply, the U.S. District Court Southern District of Indiana concluded, “Starkey qualified as a minister, and that the ministerial exception bars all of Starkey’s claims.”

What’s next?

The ministerial exception has been central to a slate of recent court decisions, a precedent, at this point, that shows no signs of abating. In fact, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty currently has pending a second, similar case defending Roncalli High School, the same Catholic high school involved in the lawsuit described above. 

The ERLC applauds the Indiana court’s decision to reaffirm the Archdiocese of Indianapolis’ constitutional rights and its prerogative to operate according to its deeply held religious beliefs, and the bearing that has on all other religious persons and institutions. Based on the number of recent favorable decisions, we are encouraged by the overwhelming number of rulings that continue to side with the cause of religious liberty.

As always, the ERLC remains committed to promoting and defending the religious liberty and conscience rights of all people and religious organizations.

By / Jul 9

A new survey on American religion finds that the percentage of Christians has stabilized, after falling for two decades.

The survey, called the 2020 Census of American Religion, finds that 7 in 10 Americans (70%) identify as Christian, including more than 4 in 10 who identify as white Christian and more than one-quarter who identify as Christians of color. Christians of color include Hispanic Catholics (8%), Black Protestants (7%), Hispanic Protestants (4%), other Protestants of color (4%), and other Catholics of color (2%). Nearly 1 in 4 Americans (23%) are religiously unaffiliated, and 5% identify with non-Christian religions.

The largest religious demographic are those who identify as white and Christian. More than 4 in 10 Americans (44%) identify as white Christian, including white evangelical Protestants (14%), white mainline Protestants (16%), and white Catholics (12%). Black Americans are also mostly Christian (72%). More than 6 in 10 (63%) are Protestant, including 35% who identify as evangelical and 28% who identify as non-evangelical Protestants.  Three in 4 Hispanic Americans (76%) also identify as Christian, and half (50%) are Catholic. About 1 in 4 (24%) identify as Protestant, including 14% who say they are evangelical and 10% who identify as non-evangelical Protestant.

Six in 10 Native Americans (60%) identify as Christian, with most (47%) identifying as Protestant (28% evangelical, 19% non-evangelical) and an additional 11% who are Catholic. Asian American and Pacific Islander Americans are as likely to be religiously unaffiliated (34%) as they are to be Christian (34%). The Christian subset includes 1 in 5 (20%) who are Protestant (10% evangelical, 10% non-evangelical) and 10% who are Catholic.

(All respondents who identified as Christian were asked: “Would you describe yourself as a ‘born again’ or ‘evangelical Christian,’ or not?” Respondents who self-identified as white, non-Hispanic, or Protestant and affirmatively identified as born-again or evangelical were categorized as white evangelical Protestants.)

A much smaller percentage of Americans identify as Latter-day Saint (Mormon), Jehovah’s Witness, or Orthodox Christian. The rest of religiously affiliated Americans belong to non-Christian groups, including 1% who are Jewish, 1% Muslim, 1% Buddhist, 0.5% Hindu, and 1% who identify with other religions. Religiously unaffiliated Americans comprise those who do not claim any particular religious affiliation (17%) and those who identify as atheist (3%) or agnostic (3%).

Until 2020, the percentage of white Americans who identify as Christian had been on the decline for more than 20 years, losing roughly 11% per decade. In 1996, almost two-thirds of Americans (65%) identified as white and Christian. But a decade later that had declined to 54%, and by 2017 it was down to 43%. The proportion of white Christians hit a low point in 2018, at 42%, but rebounded in 2020 to 44%.

The recent increase is primarily due to an uptick in the proportion of white mainline Protestants, as well as a stabilization in the proportion of white Catholics. The report notes that since 2007, white mainline Protestants have declined from 19% of the population to a low of 13% in 2016. But over the last three years, the mainline has seen small but steady increases, up to 16% in 2020. White Catholics have also declined from a high point of 16% of the population in 2008 to 12% in 2020.

Since 2006, the most radical decrease in affiliation has occurred among white evangelical Protestants, a group that shrank from 23% of Americans in 2006 to 14% in 2020. That proportion has generally held steady since 2017 (15% in 2017, 2018, and 2019).

The proportion of white Christians decreases for the younger generations. A majority of white Americans 65 and older (59%) identify as Christian, as do those ages 50-64. But that drops to 41% for those ages 30-49. Only 28% of Americans ages 18-29 are white Christians (including 12% who are white mainline Protestants, 8% who are white Catholics, and 7% who are white evangelical Protestants).

Roughly one-in-four Americans ( 26%) are Christians of color (including 9% who are Hispanic Catholics, 5% who are Hispanic Protestants, 5% who are Black Protestants, 2% who are multiracial Christians, 2% who are AAPI Christians, and 1% who are Native American Christians). More than one-third of young Americans (36%) are religiously unaffiliated, and the remainder are Jewish (2%), Muslim (2%), Buddhist (1%), Hindu (1%), or another religion (1%). 

The shift among Christians of color is more modest. While the numbers are small, African American Protestants make up 8% of Americans ages 65 and older but only 5% of Americans under the age of 30. Among those aged 18-29, 26% are Chrisitans of color (including 9% who are Hispanic Catholics, 5% who are Hispanic Protestants, 5% who are Black Protestants, 2% who are multiracial Christians, 2% who are AAPI Christians, and 1% who are Native American Christians). By contrast, the proportions of Hispanic Protestants are significantly higher among younger Americans than among people over 65. 

White evangelical Protestants are also the oldest religious group in the U.S., with a median age of 56, compared to the median age in the country of 47. Black Protestants and white mainline Protestants have a median age of 50. 

By / Oct 30

The most recent major manifestation of the widespread Catholic sex abuse scandal occurred in the diocese of Pennsylvania. Investigators discovered that, over decades, numerous priests abused especially young men and that the presiding bishops covered up the accusations against them. There is also the recent open letter from Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, which implicated the Vatican and even the current pope for enabling the predatory sexual behavior of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick against young seminarians.

Other examples of mass sexual abuse committed by Catholic clergy, again hushed by the hierarchy, have been reported in various countries around the world. The story coming out of the nation of Ireland is particularly heart-rending, for the Roman church in this traditionally Catholic nation has lost so much credibility that the political ground has shifted radically toward secular liberalism.

However, before American Protestants, including Southern Baptists, begin to think this problem does not concern us, we should take time to reconsider our presuppositions. There are numerous factors that, in contrast to the Roman Catholic context, suppress the ability of investigators to get to the bottom of the systemic problem of sexual abuse among Protestants. Immediately coming to mind are three sets of complicating factors that inhibit the gaining of adequate knowledge regarding the extent of the problem of sex abuse in Protestant churches.

The first set of complicating factors concerns the record-keeping. While Roman Catholics have centralized records that have assisted diligent investigators in tracking down the abused, the abusers, and the abettors of abuse, it would be much more difficult to prove these things in a similar size group of Protestant churches, especially among those who hold autonomous congregational polities. Because the damaging sins of some Roman Catholic clergy have been exposed, and similar numbers among Protestants have not been reported, we might presume this means Protestants are relatively guilt-free.

The sex abuse scandal among Roman Catholics should function as a wake-up call for Protestants to consider their own sex abuse problems.

A second set of complicating factors pertains to reporting and indicates this may be far from the reality. Sexual abuse by its nature is often effectively hidden from view. Because of the highly personal even shameful nature of sexuality among religious believers, sexual abuse is grossly underreported: The abused often blame themselves—they feel they were at least in part responsible, and only with hindsight and growth in social wisdom and self-awareness does this delusion begin to fall away. Again, sometimes the abused are simply not given credibility by those to whom they confide the abuse. As a result, the abused may walk away from the church or from considering real faith.

Moreover, church leaders often decide to cover up abuse in order to preserve the reputation of their institutions (or for perhaps for worse reasons). Compounding the problem is that some leaders may believe they are not accountable for their actions in these cases, simply because they could not find a Bible verse explicitly requiring them to act in this particular case in a wise manner.

Finally, it should go without saying, but sexual abusers typically do not seek to expose their own crimes. I personally know of several families, including my own extended family, who have suffered from the problem of predatory sexual grooming and child abuse in the churches, and most such instances will likely never come to public light.

A third set of complicating factors in reporting sexual abuse concerns the nature of our church polity. It is clear from stories that have recently surfaced about Protestant clergy who have sexually abused minors that their crimes were hidden simply by moving away from the church where the activity occurred. Baptists and Pentecostals and Churches of Christ, for instance, generally hold to autonomous congregational polity as a matter of conviction. If these churches do not report sexual abuse crimes to the local police, perhaps out of a misunderstanding regarding the separation of church and state, it is likely that a perpetrator will transfer his “mission field” and continue his horrific crimes elsewhere. Sexual abuse easily becomes serial sexual abuse when the perpetrator changes his address.

We could go on, but I would argue the sex abuse scandal among Roman Catholics should function as a wake-up call for Protestants to consider their own sex abuse problems. Never again should there be a little girl who reports a rape but is summarily dismissed, because people say, “Such a nice guy could never do such a thing,” and, “She has such a vivid imagination.” Never again should there be a pastor who ignores multiple warnings about a rich man grooming a lonely young man with lavish attention and gifts. Never again should there be a youth pastor who tells a young lady that he wants to pray for her, real close, encouraging her to drop her guard and allowing him to engage in inappropriate touching.

The problem we should be concerned about is not that Protestant sexual abuse might become a public scandal and that Protestants might lose public credibility. The problem we should be concerned about is that lives are permanently damaged because of our negligence to report or even willfully cover up sexual abuse. Let us pray and act, that judgment against sex abuse will begin in the Protestant church before God himself decides to restore justice, either in this life or before his throne on the Day of Judgment.

By / Jul 30


In his recent apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium,” Pope Francis asserts that “inequality is the root of social ills.” Within the context of his discussion, it is evident that Francis is not advocating for equality in an absolute sense. He is, rather, discussing the kind of unjust inequality that results from structural evil. In this way, observes Francis, injustice carries within it the seeds of social unrest. This is as true for unjust inequality as it is for unjust equality. For as the formal principle of justice teaches, there is no greater injustice than to treat unequal things equally and equal things unequally. Or as Aristotle put it following Plato, we must “treat like cases as like.” Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy is a stark illustration of the effects of tyranny based on formal injustice, which, in Francis’s words, come to expression in a political economy “of exclusion and inequality.”

Inequality as such, especially when understood as a reflection of a diversity of talents, dispositions and gifts, is not an evil, but is rather the source of rich social strength. Thus, observed Pope Leo XIII in the 1891 social encyclical Rerum Novarum, “But although all citizens, without exception, can and ought to contribute to that common good in which individuals share so advantageously to themselves, yet it should not be supposed that all can contribute in the like way and to the same extent. No matter what changes may occur in forms of government, there will ever be differences and inequalities of condition in the State. Society cannot exist or be conceived of without them.” Likewise the Dutch Reformed theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper put it, “The mere fact that God created a man and a woman proves indisputably that identical uniformity was not part of the plan of creation. So we may draw no other conclusion than that the rich variety among people, in terms of aptitude and talent, came forth from the creation itself and belongs to the essence of human nature.”

It is when inequality is unjust that it becomes a pestilence to social life. Indeed, there is such a thing as social unrest that arises because of unjust equality, and particularly in cases of an equality that is circumscribed for a few and which excludes others. The common sense nature of this is manifest in the observation of Kevin Starr, a professor of history and policy, planning and development at USC: “You can’t have a city of just rich people. A city needs restaurant workers, a city needs schoolteachers, a city needs taxi drivers.”

The need for a diversity of people to fulfill the necessary tasks for the maintenance and flourishing of a social organism as complex as a city is apparent in Collins’s Hunger Games. The social sin of  the fictional nation Panem is that it has violated the first order of society: it has created a class of labor excluded from political, economic and social life. Panem is an archetypal extractive political economy, a tyranny of elites upheld by the coercive power of police brutality.

The residents of the districts are expected to provide for the material comforts of the Capitol elite with the fruits of their toil. This is essentially an institutionalization of theft, in which those in the districts are systematically disenfranchised and dispossessed by the political elites. Panem’s Capitol is essentially a city of rich people who are served both within the city and in the districts by a permanent underclass of bondservants. Aristotle’s description of unjust inequality serves as an apt summary of Panem: “Thus arises a city, not of freemen, but of masters and slaves, the one despising, the other envying.”

The instability of Panem’s tyrannical social structure arises precisely from the injustice of this system, an inevitable consequence of deviating from the norm of equality before the law and solidarity in society. This is evident when compared to an Aristotelian vision of the polis, which was understood to be the defining feature of human sociality. Aristotle famously described the human person as a “political” being (zōon politikon), sometimes translated as a “social animal.” But for Aristotle, this meant more than the mere relationality and codependency of the human person as expressed within the context of the family, for instance. The political nature of the human person meant existing within a defined set of social relationships institutionalized in the interaction between urban and pastoral settings, which allowed for a self-sustaining social organism. The polis was thus not limited to the urban center, which depended on the agricultural output of farms for its existence. Rather, the polis included both the city as well as surrounding farmland. And, most significantly, a farmer was no less a citizen of the polis than was a city dweller.

This did not mean that there was absolute equality, of course. There were rich and poor in the polis, and there were people who pursued a variety of vocations. But in terms of their identity as participants, with rights and responsibilities, the class of members in the polis was not limited by urban vs. rural residence.  As Andrew Szegedy-Maszak of Wesleyan University puts it, the polis always “included both the urban center, called the Astu, and the landscape around it, the farmland, the agricultural area. No matter if you were living in downtown Athens, or out in Dhekelia, you were equally a citizen of Athens.” Something similar should be true of Panem, but instead citizenship privilege is limited to the elite class of Capitol residents.

There were other restrictions reflective of the particular Greek cultural setting, of course, which mirror in some ways the systematic exclusion of Panem’s social structure. The citizen of the Greek polis was always an adult male. The citizen was also always a native, and even more significantly was also a freeman. So even in Aristotle’s ideal vision of a polis there were various forms of disenfranchisement, including slavery. Since participation in the life of the polis was characteristic of humanity, a consequence of these kinds of institutions meant that those who lived in them were, by definition, less than fully human.

And yet in spite of these defects, the Aristotelian polis did reflect a central fact of human social life that remains relevant for discussions of demographics and changing landscapes in our world today. The positive ideal of the Greek polis and the negative example of Panem show that you cannot have a city simply of elites, and that the rights and responsibilities of citizenship cannot be limited merely to a particular economic class. This kind of formal equality is the basis for social justice and human flourishing. Or as Aristotle put it, “Justice is the bond of men in states,” and so injustice will always and everywhere sow the seeds of political dissolution.