Court rules it’s fine for religious school to sack teacher over her same-sex marriage

A screenshot of fired school counsellor Shelly Fitzgerald

A federal court has ruled – again – that it’s fine for a Catholic school to fire a teacher because she’s in a same-sex marriage. 

On 30 September, a federal judge rejected a lawsuit filed by Shelly Fitzgerald, a gay guidance counsellor, who was fired by Roncalli High School in 2019.

Another guidance counsellor had previously lost a similar appeal when her employment was terminated for the same reasons.

Fitzgerald began working for the Indianapolis-based high school in 2004. She was put on administrative leave in 2018 when an anonymous person tracked down her marriage certificate and sent it to school authorities.

Following an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show to talk about her experience, the school defended their decision saying she is not a good “role model” for its students. 

She was fired when the school, run by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis, became aware she was “married to a female spouse”, the ruling noted.

Fitzgerald took legal action two months Lynn Starkey lost a similar case at the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, against the same school, The Washington Post reported.  

‘Celebrate Catholic traditions’

Starkey had taught at Roncalli for nearly 40 years before being fired in 2019. Like Fitzgerald  she was told her employment would be terminated because her marriage breached her contract with the school. 

The school claims the pair’s marriages violates Catholic teaching and was grounds for dismissal.

Judge Richard L Young ruled that religious schools have the right to require that teachers reflect the values of the institution. 

She wrote that Fitzgerald signed a “school guidance ministry contract” which specified she was required to “communicate the Catholic faith to students, pray with students, and teach and celebrate Catholic traditions”. 

It also stated she would serve as what the school called “a minister of faith”. 

The former counsellor then sued, claiming retaliation for engaging in “protected conduct” and violation of federal employment laws. 

But the school and archdiocese said the “ministerial exception”, granted under the Hosanna-Tabor 9-0 ruling by the United States Supreme Court, destroyed Fitzgerald’s claims. 

The ruling means federal discrimination laws do not apply to employees of religious organisations who perform “ministerial” duties, including teaching religion. 

‘A great victory’?

Senior counsel and vice president at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, Luke Goodrich, said the latest ruling “is a great victory for not only the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, but for every religious institution seeing to install their faith in the next generation”. 

The vice president added: “Teachers, counsellors, and other school staff have an important role in students’ lives. We are glad the court decided to let Roncalli decide for itself who should have that responsibility.”

Americans United for Separation of Church and State – the law firm that represented Fitzgerald – is now discussing any possible appeal of the district court ruling.