With Lawsuits Pending, Second Employee Claims Discrimination By Catholic High School

Lynn Starkey

A second LGBT employee has claimed discrimination by Roncalli Catholic High School, which now faces two potential lawsuits after pending federal complaints were announced last week.

Lynn Starkey, co-director of guidance with two decades experience at Roncalli, filed a case with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last week claiming a “hostile work environment.” She said the discrimination began after the school placed former guidance staff member Shelly Fitzgerald on leave over her same-gender marriage. The Indianapolis Star reported of Starkey, who entered a civil union with her same-gender partner in 2015:

“A few days after Fitzgerald was gone, Starkey had prepared some remarks for an administrative council meeting and asked Roncalli Principal Chuck Weisenbach whether what she’d written would be useful in helping employees explain ‘what it was like to work at Roncalli as a gay person.’

“Weisenbach then asked Starkey if she had a civil union. Starkey told him that she did, the complaint said.

“‘In 39 years of employment at Roncalli, my case and Ms. Fitzgerald’s are the only situations where I know the principal has asked an employee about potential violations of the Church’s teachings,’ Starkey said in the complaint.”

Starkey’s complaint claimed that having to assume Fitzgerald’s responsibilites alongside the experience of discrimination in the workplace caused “severe emotional distress, pain and suffering, and mental anguish.”

Shelly Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald announced preparations of her own EEOC filing last week, the first step in any potential discrimination lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and against Roncalli.

Fitzgerald, who has remained quiet in the media besides an appearance on Ellen Degeneres’ show earlier this fall, spoke at a press conference alongside LGBT advocates. RTV 6 quoted Fitzgerald:

“‘Don’t get me wrong, I love Roncalli. I always have and I always will. It is time to make things better. It is time for us to start living what we teach. We all need to be more loving, more accepting and more welcoming to everyone, just as Jesus did and just as he called us to do.'”

The Indianapolis Star shared that Fitzgerald explained that her marriage was “fulfilling a lifelong dream” after working to reconcile her faith and sexuality while a student at Roncalli in the early 1990s, and that working at the high school as a guidance counselor since 2004 was her “dream job.” The report continued:

“Fitzgerald and her supporters are pushing for the Archdiocese to change its employment practices, which include contract language that prohibits LGBTQ employees from being in same-sex marriages. She wants the Archdiocese to allow employees to enter into same-sex marriages. to extend benefits to same-sex spouses and to rehire LGBTQ employees who were fired under the old contract language.

“Fitzgerald is also requesting that the Archdiocese allow chapters of the Gay-Straight Alliance in all Catholic schools.”

LGBT advocates have expressed their support for Fitzgerald. Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, spoke at the same press conference. She said in her statement:

“It is tragic and ironic that we are even standing here addressing this. Our church has a rich tradition of standing for worker’s rights, calling for just working conditions, freedom from discrimination, and recognition that work is sacred. These beliefs are found in many Vatican documents and statements from the US Catholic bishops. We expect our Church leaders to adhere to the same standards they demand of other employers and treat those who work in Catholic institutions with justice and respect.”

Because of scheduling conflicts, New Ways Ministry was unable to send a representative to the press conference, but showed its support for Fitzgerald by sending the following statement:

“We stand with Shelly Fitzgerald in her struggle for justice in the church for herself and for others. For the past ten years, we have documented the terribly unjust trend of employment disputes, including firings of LGBT church workers. It is a record of shame that darkens the U.S. Catholic Church, and it presents a closed fist when Pope Francis is encouraging Catholic leaders to extend an open hand.

“These disputes are in direct opposition to Catholic teaching about worker justice, which promotes the right to work and fair treatment of employees. These disputes also contradict Catholic teaching on LGBT issues, which says that lesbian and gay people ‘must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2358). U.S. Catholics in the pews overwhelmingly support LGBT people, including the legal right to marry. U.S. Catholics want their church to adhere to Church teaching on employment and to follow the Gospel on respect for the dignity of the human person.

“Shelly Fitzgerald should be reinstated to her position immediately to provide the justice she has been denied. Her reinstatement will be an important lesson in reconciliation for the students and community of Roncalli High School. We call on all Catholic institutions to respect equally all the members of God’s diverse family.

1998 gay alum, Tony Dale, published a letter to the editor in The Indianapolis Starwriting that an educator like Fitzgerald would have been helpful, but

“Instead of arguments about the contract, whether it’s right or wrong, legal or not, if there is a loophole, I call for you to look at the opportunity you have here. Somewhere in a south deanery school, there is a 7th grader who is starting to realize their sexuality, like I did. They’re scared, like I was. They wonder, like I did. What they’re seeing now is petrifying for them. . .

“Having someone like Fitzgerald at the school could have been helpful for me when I was in school. Someone who has a life outside of school, while directly against a teaching of the Catholic church, but guides and counsels at the school anyway. Think of the difference she could make for someone in a similar situation. She probably already has and you might not even know it. . .Don’t let what happened to me happen to a future or current student. Fitzgerald is there for a reason. The opportunity for her to continue the good she’s doing and potentially change a life is a benefit that far outweighs any possible breach of a contract.”

Fitzgerald has no plans to return to Roncalli while Starkey plans to continue working.

The situation at Roncalli involving Shelly Fitzgerald and Lynn Starkey makes clear that LGBT-related employment disputes impact not only the church worker involved but fellow employees and the community environment.  Administrators can pre-empt a painful and costly legal battle by acknowledging their mistakes and working to prevent future disputes, starting with a return to the wisdom of the pope after whom the school is named. John XXIII (previously Angelo Roncalli) wrote in his encyclical Pacem in Terris that workers have a right to work without coercion and a right to just working conditions. These words from 1963 now need to be lived out in 2018 for it is months overdue that the process of justice and reconciliation begin at Roncalli Catholic High School.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, November 18, 2018

Related information:

For information and resources on employment disputes involving LGBT issues at Catholic institutions, click here.

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