Roncalli High School and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis discriminated against Shelly Fitzgerald because she exercised her constitutional right to marry. The high school fired Shelly because she was married to another woman, and Shelly sued. On Sept. 30, a federal district court judge in Indiana held that courts could not even examine Shelly’s claims under a court-created doctrine that circumvents civil rights laws known as the ‘ministerial exception.’
Rachel Laser, President and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which is part of Shelly Fitzgerald’s legal team, issued the following statement:
“The court wrongly held that Catholic schools are above the law. 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. 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.
“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. This decision failed to uphold religious freedom and instead vindicated religious privilege. That is not what our Constitution intended.
“We are still discussing a possible appeal but no decision has been made.
“I also 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 license to harm others and violate their rights.”
Americans United is a religious freedom advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, AU educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.
Associate Vice President of Communications