Former Roncalli counselor fired for same-sex marriage argues district court misapplied ministerial exception

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

Former Roncalli High School guidance counselor Michelle “Shelly” Fitzgerald is asking the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals to revive her lawsuit against the Catholic high school and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis, arguing in a brief filed this week that the district court misapplied the ministerial exception in dismissing her case.

The brief — filed by Indianapolis attorney Mark W. Sniderman and attorneys with Americans United for Separation of Church and State — further argues that Fitzgerald’s rights under the First Amendment, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act were violated, and that the Indiana Southern District Court improperly broadened the scope of the ministerial exception.

Fitzgerald had sued Roncalli and the archdiocese in 2019 after she was fired from her longtime position at the school because she was married to a woman.

The Indiana Southern District Court summarily dismissed Fitzgerald’s lawsuit in September, concluding Fitzgerald performed a ministerial role for the school, so the archdiocese is protected by the ministerial exception doctrine from state interference in its internal decisions.

The following month, Americans United for Separation of Church and State announced it was appealing the case to the 7th Circuit.

In the brief, Fitzgerald argues the district court disregarded her “abundant record” of evidence that she “never performed religious duties, that Roncalli never told her to incorporate religion into her work, and that neither Roncalli nor the students or their families ever expected her to provide religious guidance.”

“Roncalli also put forth scattershot constitutional and statutory arguments — each as novel as it is wrong. Its position boils down to an assertion that religious employers are simply above the law,” the brief states. “Any of these arguments, if accepted, would allow religious employers to discriminate with impunity: Millions of lay employees — janitors, nurses, math teachers, volleyball coaches, and so many more — would lose all protections of the fundamental civil-rights laws that are supposed to shield them from discrimination on the basis of sex, race, disability, age, and veteran status. And for what?”

The brief further argues that when Fitzgerald was hired, her application made no mention of her faith, nor did she describe any experience teaching religion. Rather, she argues the bulk of her job was secular work with students, and Roncalli “lauded” her job performance prior to her firing.

“This case is part of a dangerous trend: The school’s attorneys and religious employers are urging courts to adopt an ever-broader interpretation of the ministerial exception, which was meant to ensure that houses of worship could freely choose their clergy,” Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United, said in a statement. “Judges created the ministerial exception for ministers. It’s right there in the name. The rule was never meant to put religious employers above the law and permit them to discriminate against all workers and sidestep civil-rights laws.”

Multiple state and federal lawsuits concerning the firing of gay teachers at Catholic schools have gone before judges, but the Indiana Supreme Court and 7th Circuit have sided with the archdiocese.

The case is Michelle Fitzgerald v. Roncalli High School, Inc., and Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Inc., 22-2954.

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