Dismissal of lawsuit against Archdiocese highlights sharp divisions

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An LGBTQ+ pride flag flies outside the Supreme Court of the United States. (IL file photo)

The lawsuit filed by Michelle “Shelly” Fitzgerald against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis hinged on the question of not what she actually did as a guidance counselor, but what the school expected her to do.

In a discrimination complaint filed in the Indiana Southern District Court in 2019, Fitzgerald alleged Roncalli High School and the Archdiocese violated her civil rights when they fired her for being lawfully married to another woman. She claimed the church violated 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, retaliated against her, and interfered with her contractual and business relationship with the school.

However, the federal court did not weigh the substance of her allegations. Instead, the lawsuit was dismissed on the basis that under the ministerial exception, the Archdiocese has the right to hire and fire as it sees fit.

“Fitzgerald’s employment agreement and Roncalli’s description of Fitzgerald’s expected duties are, alone, sufficient to resolve this case because those documents make clear that Roncalli entrusted Fitzgerald to teach the Catholic faith and carry out Roncalli’s religious mission,” Judge Richard Young wrote in the Sept. 30 ruling in Michelle Fitzgerald v. Roncalli High School, Inc. and Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Inc., 1:19-cv-04291.

The ruling was another loss in a trio of lawsuits brought by LGBTQ teachers at Indianapolis schools who were fired by the Archdiocese for being in same-sex marriages. Fitzgerald’s colleague at Roncalli, Lynn Starkey, and Joshua Payne-Elliott, formerly a teacher at Cathedral High School, also filed complaints and lost because of the precedent from the U.S. Supreme Court and the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals regarding the ministerial exception.

Under Our Lady of Guadalupe Sch. v. Morrissey-Berru, 140 S. Ct. 2049, 2060 (2020), and Starkey v. Roman Cath. Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Inc., 41 F.4th at 945 (7th Cir. 2022), the exception bars federal and state law claims by prohibiting courts from ruling on employment disputes involving “all religious employees” who perform “vital religious duties.”

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, legal counsel for the Archdiocese, hailed the district court’s ruling in Fitzgerald as a victory in protecting religious institutions from government interference in “internal religious matters.” In firing Fitzgerald, the Catholic Church had asserted her marriage conflicted with the “moral or religious teachings” of the faith.

“The Supreme Court has long recognized that religious organizations have a constitutional right to hire individuals who believe in their faith’s ideals and are committed to their religious mission,” Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, said in a news release. “This is a common-sense ruling: Catholic schools exist to pass on the Catholic faith to their students; to do that, they need freedom to ask Catholic educators to uphold Catholic values.”

Becket’s news release credited Jay Mercer of Fitzwater Mercer as also representing the Archdiocese. However, the court’s docket lists a John S. Mercer as an attorney at Wooten Hoy LLC and the Indiana Roll of Attorneys lists him as working for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

Americans United for Separation of Church & State, which was part of the legal team that represented Fitzgerald, countered courts have expanded the ministerial exception beyond its original intent. Andrew Seidel, spokesman for the nonprofit, said the rule was meant to allow churches to making hiring decisions about clergy but “religious extremists” are using it as a “weapon to discriminate.”

“We have civil rights laws in place that protect employees from this kind of discrimination,” Seidel said in an interview with Indiana Lawyer. “And it’s one thing for courts to say this doesn’t apply to members of the clergy; churches need to have the autonomy to hire and fire them as they see fit. It’s quite another to say that any religious organization can hire and fire any employee for any reason, or none, so long as that organization can say this person has a religious duty or two.”

Fitzgerald and her legal team are still deciding whether to appeal to the 7th Circuit, according to Seidel. Along with Americans United, she is represented by David Page of Henn Haworth Cunnings & Page in Greenwood and Mark Sniderman of Findling Park Conyers Woody & Sniderman P.C. in Indianapolis.

The 13-page ruling from the district court highlighted the back-and-forth between the Archdiocese and Fitzgerald over whether her job included religious tasks.

Roncalli and the Archdiocese stated Fitzgerald’s job included tending to the spiritual needs of students. In particular, she was part of the administrative council that was “responsible for 95% of Roncalli’s daily ministry, education, and operations.”

Also, as a guidance counselor, Fitzgerald was expected to guide students in the Catholic faith. And in 2018, she signed a “School Guidance Counselor Ministry Contract,” which stated guidance counselors were expected to help students strengthen and develop their “social, emotional, intellectual and Christian development.”

Fitzgerald submitted evidence that the district court described as suggesting the Archdiocese’s description of the administrative council is not true. She maintained the council was focused on the “everyday questions related to running a school” while the president’s council was responsible for 95% of Roncalli’s daily ministry.

In addition, Fitzgerald asserted that as a guidance counselor, she helped students with their academics, SAT and ACT testing, and career guidance. She did not pray with them or discuss religious doctrine, and when students had questions about their faith, they were sent to a religion teacher, campus minister or the school’s priest.

The district court noted Fitzgerald raised “numerous genuine factual disputes” over what her actual job entailed at Roncalli. However, in a footnote, the court cited to Morrissey-Berru and held “Fitzgerald’s subjective understanding of her role is not dispositive. … Instead, ‘it is the school’s expectations … that matters.’”

Seidel described the case as “wrongly decided.” He pointed out that the Archdiocese’s assertions that Fitzgerald was a minister are contrary to Catholic teaching because women are not permitted to hold such posts in the church.

“This decision failed to uphold religious freedom and instead vindicated religious privilege,” Seidel said. “The court essentially held that religion is above the law and that is not what our Constitution intended.”

Goodrich said the ruling underscores that the Archdiocese and its schools are free to choose leaders who will uphold the core religious teachings of the Catholic faith.

“Today is a great victory for not only the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, but for every religious institution seeking to instill their faith in the next generation,” he said. “Teachers, counselors, 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.”

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