Americans United announced on Oct. 31 that it will appeal the dismissal of the federal lawsuit Fitzgerald v. Roncalli High School on behalf of Shelly Fitzgerald, a high school guidance counselor fired by a Catholic high school and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis because she is married to a woman.
On Sept. 30, a federal district court judge in Indiana held that courts could not even examine Fitzgerald’s claims because of a court-created doctrine known as the “ministerial exception,” which circumvents civil rights laws. Americans United, which is part of Fitzgerald’s legal team, is appealing that decision to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Fitzgerald was a guidance counselor for 15 years at Roncalli High School, a Catholic school in Indianapolis that’s also her alma mater. A state-licensed professional counselor, she was responsible for assisting and advising students on their academic, professional and vocational options.
Fitzgerald and her wife, Victoria, have been together for 25 years; they married in 2014, when Indiana legalized marriage for same-sex couples. Administrators at Roncalli High knew about her relationship, but four years after the couple wed, in August 2018, Fitzgerald was called into a meeting with the school’s principal and informed that her marriage was contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church. She was given four options: dissolve her marriage, resign her position, be let go after her contract was up in one year or be immediately fired.
After Fitzgerald refused to dissolve her marriage or resign, the school placed her on administrative leave, banned her from the school campus and issued a press release announcing that Fitzgerald 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.” She was told in the spring of 2019 that her contract would not be renewed.
Americans United joined Fitzgerald’s legal team in fall 2020.
“The court wrongly held that Catholic schools are above the law,” Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United, said in a media statement. “According to the proffered rationale, a Catholic school can strip every employee – from janitor, to cook, to P.E. teacher, to guidance counselor – of the protection of basic civil rights laws by shoehorning a few religious duties into their job descriptions.
“Religious extremists are waging a crusade to expand a commonsense rule that allows houses of worship to select their own clergy according to their own faith into a means to avoid liability for bigotry and discrimination,” Laser continued. “If allowed to continue, the expanded doctrine will allow any nominally religious organization to hire and fire any employee for any reason or none, so long as the organization can include a religious duty in a contract.”
She concluded, “When the Supreme Court first extended this ‘ministerial exception’ to employees other than clergy in 2012, some religious employers around the country began rewriting handbooks and employment contracts to label every employee as some kind of minister – even when that’s not what the job actually requires. But Shelly Fitzgerald, like most employees at religious organizations, wasn’t hired to minister to students or to preach the Catholic religion. She was hired to provide secular guidance to students seeking to get into college. She should not have lost her civil rights simply because the secular work she performed was done at a religious school. The district court’s decision failed to uphold religious freedom and instead vindicated religious privilege. That is not what our Constitution intended.”