September 2023 Church & State Magazine - September 2023

Federal appeals court permits Ind. Catholic school to fire guidance counselor over same-sex wedding


A federal appeals court ruled July 13 that Roncalli High School and officials at the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis were within their rights to fire Shelly Fitzgerald, a guidance counselor who exercised her legal right to marry someone of the same gender.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that the “ministerial exception” prevents Fitzgerald from vindicating her rights to be free from discrimination. This court-created doctrine circumvents civil rights laws by allowing religious employers to discriminate against employees who perform important religious duties.

Fitzgerald (center): No recourse in court

Americans United, which was part of a team that represented Fitzgerald in court, asserted that she was not a minister, noting that Fitzgerald had no explicit religious duties. Her main job was providing secular counseling to students.

Rachel Laser, President and CEO of Americans United, criticized the ruling in Fitzgerald v. Roncalli High School, Inc.

“Religious extremists are waging a crusade to undermine basic civil rights and won a disturbing victory before the Supreme Court in the 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis case just weeks ago,” Laser said. “Shelly Fitzgerald’s case was another line of attack. These religious extremists are trying to expand a narrow, commonsense rule — meant to allow houses of worship to select their own clergy according to their own faith — into a broad license to circumvent civil rights laws and to discriminate.”

Added Laser, “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.”

Laser concluded, “I want to commend our plaintiff, Shelly Fitzgerald, for courageously speaking up on behalf of all people vulnerable to discrimination in the name of religion. Shelly and brave people like her are on the front lines warning the American people about the very real threats we face from a shadowy network of religious extremists working to turn religious freedom from a shield into a sword to harm others and violate their rights.”

Americans United Litigation Fellow Gabriela Hybel argued Fitzgerald’s case before the 7th Circuit. Fitzgerald was represented by AU Litigation Counsel Bradley Girard; Hybel; Mark Sniderman of Findling, Park, Conyers, Woody & Sniderman, P.C.; and David Page of Henn Haworth Cummings & Page.

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