In Indianapolis, Catholic School Students Protest Spate of Church Worker Firings

Dominic Conover, left, with Shelly Fitzgerald

After their teacher was fired for being married to another woman, students at a Catholic school in Indianapolis formed a group to respond and push for a more inclusive church. Shelly Fitzgerald, a co-director of guidance at Roncalli High School, was “abruptly given an ultimatum and required to choose between her job as codirector of guidance or her same-sex marriage,” as reported by a new article in U.S. Catholic.

Fitzgerald was a popular teacher, and students at Roncalli soon responded to her firing by organizing in support of her. Six students created the group “Shelly’s Voice” to boost an LGBTQ-affirming message in their school and the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. Launched in December 2018, the group began by writing over a hundred letters to the superintendent and Archbishop Charles Thompson of Indianapolis as well as other Catholic leaders. In April 2019, they started PRISM, a GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) for southern Indianapolis schoolkids who did not have a formal GSA in their schools.

In October, U.S. Catholic interviewed two founders of Shelly’s Voice, Dominic Conover and Maddie Aldrich, to learn about their work and their motivations.

In answer to why he felt he had to take these steps as a Catholic student, Conover replied:

“In the past, I have to admit, I was ignorant of some types of discrimination. I didn’t know it could happen in my Catholic community, and once it did, it was truly eye-opening. When you’re faced with discrimination, you have to make a choice on whether you’re going to fight for it, whether you’re going to fight against it, or whether you’re going to leave the institution. And this year has really taught me to embrace my faith and my passion for equality and become a better leader through that. I think it has helped me accept myself more and accept other LGBTQ+ individuals more.”

Aldrich added:

“I feel like God’s plan is supposed to push you out of your comfort zone. It’s probably something way different than you would have expected, but God won’t give you a battle you can’t handle. […] looking back, I have been able to use talents I didn’t know I have. I learned I love to write. I learned how impactful my voice can be, and that has helped me to be more open, accepting, and kind to everybody. I didn’t know this was God’s plan for me, but now I believe it is and I don’t think I would change it.”

These students’ advocacy work has not gone entirely without consequence. In an essay he wrote for The Advocate, Conover recollected how the principal of the school and the superintendent of the archdiocese told him that he was “leading people away from Christ.” They told him that Roncalli may not be the best fit for him, and suggested his ability to graduate would be in question. Conover agreed to be silent for the rest of the school year, but picked up his advocacy again after graduating. He described the school administration’s actions as “intimidation.” Bondings 2.0 published a priest’s letter praising Conover for his advocacy, which you can read here.

Though some of the founders have since graduated, and though they were not successful in their initial goal of getting Shelly Fitzgerald her job back, the students continue their work up to the present day. They conduct Safe-Zone Training “to educate fellow Catholics by giving them an opportunity to learn more about LGBTQ+ vocabulary, false assumptions, and other topics that deal with sexuality and gender.” The group is also in the middle of a letter writing campaign that Conover says is ongoing:

“We see the importance of Catholics and Christians writing to church leaders and expressing their disappointment in how the church has treated LGBTQ+ people and same-sex marriages. We also see the importance of others asking for change, so that it’s not just Shelly’s Voice doing that.”

Asked if he believed the present-day Catholic Church is capable of change in affirming LGBT parishioners, Conover responded:

“We are most focused on making change within the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, but absolutely I think the Catholic Church will change: It has to. Seventy percent of Catholics believe society should accept LGBTQ+ people. So if the Catholic Church doesn’t make the change quick enough, if they never make that change to being fully inclusive, 70 percent of Catholics are going to get fed up.”

Fitzgerald is just one of four Catholic school workers in Indianapolis who have lost their jobs in the last year or so due to LGBTQ-related employment disputes. Two others, Lynn Starkey and Kelly Fisher, were fired by Roncalli High as well. Joshua Payne-Elliott was fired by Cathedral High School for being in a same-gender marriage. Archbishop Thompson stripped Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School of its Catholic designation for refusing to fire Payne-Elliott’s husband, Layton, though the sanctions are suspended while the school appeals the archbishop’s actions to the Vatican. The Archdiocese is facing now several lawsuits from these employees. The Trump administration has made known its support for the Archdiocese in the disputes.

Shelly Fitzgerald and the other fired Indianapolis church workers are among the more than 80 church employees who have lost their jobs in LGBTQ-related disputes over the last decade. The following resources are available to learn more about such disputes and how Catholics can take action against the church employee firings:

  • For Bondings 2.0’s full coverage of the Indianapolis employment disputes involving Roncalli High, Cathedral High School, and Brebeuf Jesuity Preparatory School, click here.
  • For Bondings 2.0’s full coverage of church employment issues, click the “Employment” category on the right-hand side of this page.
  • For New Ways Ministry’s resources on non-discrimination, church workers, and LGBTQ issues here.

Artemis Walsh, November 3, 2019

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