Shelly Fitzgerald was a loved and trusted guidance counselor for fifteen years at her alma mater, Roncalli High School, a Catholic school in Indiana. A state-licensed professional counselor, Shelly was responsible for assisting and advising students on their academic, professional and vocational options.

Shelly and her wife, Victoria, have been together for 25 years; they married in 2014, when Indiana legalized marriage for same-sex couples. Four years after they wed, in August 2018, Shelly was called into a meeting with the school’s principal (who had long known that Shelly is a lesbian) along with Roncalli’s president. They presented her with a copy of her marriage license and said that her relationship was contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church. They gave her four heartbreaking “options”: She could dissolve her marriage; she could resign her position; she could “keep quiet” about why she was being fired until her one-year contract was up and then be let go; or she could be immediately fired.

Shelly refused to dissolve her marriage or resign. Within days, the school placed her on administrative leave, banned her from the school campus, and issued a press release announcing that Shelly had been placed on paid administrative leave because she was “living in a civil marriage that is not valid in the eyes of the Church.” Shelly was told in the spring of 2019 that her contract would not be renewed.

Shelly filed a federal lawsuit in October 2019 because the school and the archdiocese violated her civil rights by discriminating against her on the basis of her sex. The school and archdiocese also retaliated against Shelly by taking it out on her family: Her father, Pat Fitzgerald, a volunteer at Roncalli High School for more than 26 years, was told he could no longer volunteer at the school because he’d publicly supported his daughter.

Roncalli High School is trying to improperly exploit a number of legal doctrines under the First Amendment to avoid responsibility for unjustly firing Shelly, including arguing that, under a doctrine known as the “ministerial exception,” the school cannot be held liable for its discrimination against her. But the ministerial exception applies only to vital preachers and teachers of the faith. It is meant to ensure that houses of worship can freely choose their clergy; it was never intended to be a free pass for any religious employer to discriminate against its entire workforce. And Shelly’s job was not to transmit faith-based teachings—she has never been a minister, nor has she ever held herself out as one.

Americans United joined Shelly’s legal team in Fall 2020. In March of 2021, the District Court allowed the case to proceed, finding that it was premature to decide whether the school’s and archdiocese’s defenses applied. The school and archdiocese moved in November 2021 for summary judgment, seeking to end the case based primarily on their contention that Shelly was a minister. We filed a response to this motion on Shelly’s behalf in January 2022.

In addition, in November 2021, Americans United filed an amicus brief in Starkey v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Inc., in support of Shelly’s Co-Director of Guidance Lynn Starkey, who was also fired by Roncalli for being married to a woman. In July 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that Starkey was a minister, based on the specific evidence in her case. In August 2022, we filed a brief in Shelly’s case arguing that the reasoning in Starkey cannot resolve Shelly’s case.

On September 30, 2022, the district court in Shelly’s case granted summary judgment in favor of the school and the archdiocese, concluding that it was bound by the Starkey decision to treat Shelly as a “minister.” On October 28, 2022, we appealed that decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

AU Litigation Fellow Gabi Hybel presented oral argument to the Seventh Circuit on June 2, 2023. On July 13, 2023, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s holding but rejected its reasoning, holding that Shelly was a minister because the school actually entrusted her with ministerial duties. This ruling limited the scope of the Seventh Circuit’s decision in Starkey.

Listen to Shelly’s story on Ellen.

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