District Court Rules Against Fired Church Worker Shelly Fitzgerald in Discrimination Case

Shelly Fitzgerald

A federal court has ruled for Archdiocese of Indianapolis and one of its Catholic high schools in a lawsuit filed by Shelly Fitzgerald, a former guidance counselor whose contract was not renewed because of her same-gender marriage.

Relying on previous U.S. Supreme Court rulings that emphasized the ministerial exception as it relates to religious school’s employment practices and government laws, Judge Richard Young of the Southern District of Indiana ruled on September 30th in the case Fitzgerald v. Roncalli High School and the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. This decision mirrors a similar ruling from Young filed by another former Roncalli counselor against the same school and archdiocese. Catholic New Service (CNS) reported:

“Young said the Indianapolis Archdiocese and its schools can select, retain or dismiss faculty according to their religious standards, something he also stressed a year ago.”

Fitzgerald was fired from Roncalli High School in 2018 after serving for 15 years as the co-director of guidance. The school declined to renew her contract for the following year after she confirmed that she was in a same-gender marriage. School administrators said Fitzgerald’s relationship violated her agreement with the school. CNS reported: 

“On Sept. 29, the court threw out the lawsuit, noting that ‘Roncalli entrusted Fitzgerald to teach the Catholic faith and carry out’ its religious mission.

“The contract described school employees as ministers of faith. It also contained a clause stipulating that employees would forfeit their positions if they engaged in conduct that did not adhere with ‘the moral or religious teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.'”

Despite the judge indicating in court documents that the role of a guidance counselor is “predominately secular” and that it would be “a stretch” to describe a guidance counselor as a minister, the school’s representatives stated that Roncalli “entrusted guidance counselors like Fitzgerald to convey the church’s message in addition to their secular duties.” 

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis and its schools have been roiled in controversy for several years now because of employment discrimination. In addition to Fitzgerald, Lynn Starkey was fired in 2019 from her role in the guidance department at Roncalli over a same-gender marriage, and has lost court cases in her own discrimination lawsuit. Kelly Fisher, a social worker at the school, was terminated in that same year for supporting Fitzgerald and Starkey.

Elsewhere in the archdiocese, Cathedral High School was forced by Archbishop Charles Thompson to fire Joshua Payne-Elliott for his same-gender marriage. Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School refused the archbishop’s request to fire his husband, Layton Payne-Elliott, for the same reason. Thompson then stripped Brebeuf Jesuit of its Catholic affiliation, which the school and the Jesuits’ Midwest Province have appealed to the Vatican. Catholics and LGBTQ+ allies have protested these firings, but many of the lawsuits have been unsuccessful in U.S. courts.

In Indianapolis and elsewhere, LGBTQ+ faculty and staff at Catholic schools continue to be subjected to unequal employment standards. Civil courts may allow this discrimination to continue based on conservative interpretations of religious liberty handed down by a right-wing Supreme Court. Even if church leaders have a right to discriminate, however, they should abide instead by the church’s social teachings which call them to respect human dignity and just labor rights.

Bobby Nichols (he/him), New Ways Ministry, October 20, 2022

3 replies
  1. Hazel Rolfe
    Hazel Rolfe says:

    I have heard it all before.It is very painful.What would Jesus say.It has always been a boys club with insecure members

  2. Stephen Modde
    Stephen Modde says:

    This is unbelievable but also believable in light of several bishops and thus diocesan administrations. Perhaps they should reread the Vatican Document on The Church in the Modern World, Dec. 1965. One is bound to follow this conscience faithfully in all his activity so that he may come to God. Therefore he must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. (sorry for sexist terminology here) … Read and listen to statements about gays recently from Pope Francis.
    When will some bishops stop persecuting gays? When will they realize the spirituality of gays and what they can offer the Church. It’s sinful that gays are fired for being true to themselves or following conscience from being true to the Holy Spirit.

  3. Ann Marie Connolly
    Ann Marie Connolly says:

    Sad when “religious liberty” is translated to mean “freedom to discriminate”!
    This moral standard is unjustly applied to LGBTQ persons. We don’t see schools firing “straight” employees who may be carrying on extra-marital affairs, engaging in premarital sex, using artificial contraception or pursuing active sexual relationships following divorce (without Church sanctioned annulment). Guess only gays can offer students immoral role models. Sad, too, for the students who are (no doubt, some are) LGBTQ. The message they are receiving is that there is no path to a healthy, moral loving future for them!


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