A Catholic high school in Indiana has asked a lesbian employee to dissolve her same-gender marriage if she wants to remain employed, and threatened to fire her if she went public about the school’s request.
Administrators at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis threatened to fire Shelly Fitzgerald, a guidance counselor at the school. WTHR 13 reported:
“Fitzgerald says school leaders asked to meet with her last Friday afternoon, after discovering her marriage license. She says she was told a parishioner at a local church got the certificate and gave it to their priest. That priest then shared it with school leaders at Roncalli.
“Fitzgerald said she met with Roncalli Superintendent Joe Hollowell and Chuck Weisenbach, Roncalli’s principal.
“They gave Fitzgerald four options.
“‘I think their hand was forced and I’m sorry that they’re in this position. They said that either I could resign, that I could dissolve my marriage,’ Fitzgerald said.
“Or, she says, they told her she could keep things quiet, stay through this year and not get renewed next year. If things got noisy, they would fire her.”
Fitzgerald, who is now on paid administrative leave, went public about her situation at a school she described as “family” and “what filled my cup.” An alumna of Roncalli herself, the guidance counselor explained:
“‘I told them, you know, I’ve been quiet for 15 years [working at the school] so why is this different? I mean I’ve hidden everything from social media. I’ve hidden from people I love because I knew I was at risk for losing my job over this. . .I have no intention of resigning. I have no intention of being quiet. And I didn’t need the counsel that they were offering from priests. My goal, my intent is just to be a catalyst for change. That’s it. . .
“‘There’s a piece of me that is shameful for the message that I’ve taught my daughter in the last 15 years that this is OK to stay quiet to keep a job. But I will tell you the lesson she has seen in this now is one of incredible love.'”
Roncalli administrators posted a statement on Facebook. The school would not comment on specific personnel matters, but shared, in part:
“As role models for students, the personal conduct of every teacher, guidance counselor and administrator and staff member, both at school and away from school, must convey and be supportive of the teachings of the Catholic Church. These teachings include, but are not limited to: honoring the dignity of each human life from conception to natural death, care for God’s creation, and the belief that all persons are called to respect human sexuality and its expression in the Sacrament of Marriage between a man and a woman as a sign of God’s love and fidelity to His Church.”
The statement also said the school’s contracts lay out these expectations, and that when disputes arise the school will “attempt to reach a resolution so that the contractual requirements are fulfilled.” The Archdiocese of Indianapolis has refused to comment.
Fitzgerald, who is Catholic, has been in a relationship with her now-wife for 22 years. The couple married in 2014 and have a daughter together. She is now considering her options in conjunction with a lawyer, including both a dialogue that could resolve the matter and the possibility of a discrimination lawsuit.
But in the meantime, the Roncalli community is making their support for Fitzgerald known. WISHTV 8 reported that students wore rainbow heart stickers to show their support. The Huffington Post shared that students and alumni were leaving flowers, signs, and t-shirts outside the school to protest Roncalli officials’ actions. Some 2,300 people already joined a Facebook group, “Time to Be a Rebel,” established to support Fitzgerald, along with the Twitter hashtag #ISupportMsFitzgerald.
In an the Indianapolis Star article,Catholic LGBT advocates also offered their support to Fitzgerald.
Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, said the action against Fitzgerald “is wrong and flies in the face of Catholic values of love, compassion and justice.”
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, said that Fitzgerald’s case is not an isolated incident:
“‘This has been a trend going on now for about seven or eight years. . .We continue to hear of new cases, and I think at the root of it is the fact that Catholic leadership has not resolved itself to the fact that marriage equality for lesbian and gay people is now a social reality.'”
Fitzgerald commented on all this support:
“‘It’s completely overwhelming. Humbling. . .I have never been so proud of our students and faculty and staff and parents and people I don’t even know who’ve reached out to me because it’s important. This is exactly what we’ve taught them to do. Use your voice for good and stay positive. Be kind to one another. And trust that God will put the right words in our mouth and at the end of the day, pray for both sides because I know this isn’t easy for the people at Roncalli or at the Archdiocese as well. Roncalli is a great, loving place. I only want to make Roncalli a better place, truly.'”
It is an open question whether Roncalli would be legally justified should it choose to fire Fitzgerald. The Indianapolis Star reported that non-discrimination based on sexual orientation is a city ordinance in Indianapolis but such protections are not state law. There are further complications about whether the so-called “ministerial exemption” afforded to religious institution applies to a guidance counselor at a Catholic school and what role public funding the school receives may have in this case.
But Roncalli officials can avoid causing further pain to Shelly Fitzgerald, her family, and the school community, as well as avoid a legal battle, if they make the morally right choice to rescind their demands and keep Fitzgerald employed. Whichever way they decide, by living openly and authentically, Fitzgerald is already the very role model that school officials say she is not.
In the last decade, more than 80 church workers have gone public about losing their jobs in LGBT-related employment disputes. You can find a full listing of these incidents here, as well as New Ways Ministry’s resources on church employment and LGBT issues here. For Bondings 2.0’s full coverage of church employment issues, click the “Employment” category on the right-hand side of this page.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, August 15, 2018