Fighting Discrimination

Americans United Files Federal Appeal On Behalf Of Shelly Fitzgerald, Indiana Catholic School Guidance Counselor Fired For Marrying A Woman

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Americans United for Separation of Church and State announced 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 Roncalli High School and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis because she is married to a woman.

Shelly Fitzgerald and family

Shelly Fitzgerald, center, and her family

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. On Friday, Americans United appealed that decision to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United, 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. The district court’s decision failed to uphold religious freedom and instead vindicated religious privilege. That is not what our Constitution intended.”

More information about Fitzgerald’s case, Fitzgerald v. Roncalli High School, is available here. A photo of Fitzgerald is available here.

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.

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