Counselor in same-sex marriage sues Catholic school that fired her

Oct. 22, 2019
Shelly Fitzgerald worked for 15 years at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis until the archdiocese found out she was in a same-sex marriage.

A guidance counselor who was fired from a Catholic high school in Indianapolis, Ind., because of her same-sex marriage has filed a discrimination lawsuit against the school and the archdiocese.

The Indianapolis Star reports that Shelly Fitzgerald, who was fired last year from Roncalli High School, asserts in the federal lawsuit that the school and archdiocese discriminated against her, retaliated against her, and subjected her to a hostile work environment because of her sex and her sexual orientation.

Fitzgerald is seeking unspecified damages for lost back pay, lost front pay, loss of future earning capacity, lost employer provided benefits and emotional distress.

The suit also contends that the archdiocese interfered with contractual and business relationships between Fitzgerald and Roncalli.

The archdiocese says it has a constitutional right to "hire leaders who support the schools’ religious mission." 

"Catholic schools exist to communicate the Catholic faith to the next generation," the archdiocese said in a statement. "To accomplish their mission, Catholic schools ask all teachers, administrators, and guidance counselors to uphold the Catholic faith by word and action, both inside and outside the classroom."

Fitzgerald, a Roncalli graduate, had worked for the school for 15 years before she was placed on administrative leave and banned from campus at the start of the 2018-19 school year. She was fired at the end of the school year, when her contract expired, because of her same-sex marriage. 

Fitzgerald married her wife, Victoria, in 2014. They've been together for 23 years and have a 13-year-old daughter, Sofi. The couple adopted her from Guatemala as a baby. 

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis, which oversees all Catholic schools in the area, began requiring schools to enforce "morality clauses" in all employee contracts that call for employees to live in accordance with Catholic teaching.

During a news conference in July, Archbishop Charles Thompson said a parishioner had turned in a copy of Fitzgerald's marriage license to church officials, forcing him to act.

Fitzgerald was told she could dissolve her marriage, resign or "keep quiet" until her contract expired. She was placed on administrative leave after declining all three of those options. 

David Page, Fitzgerald's lawyer, argues that his client was treated differently than heterosexual employees who violate Catholic church teachings in other ways.

The lawsuit also asserts that the archdiocese and Roncalli retaliated against Fitzgerald's father, who had been a longtime volunteer at the school. He was barred from serving at the school's Senior Retreat, where he had spoken for the last 26 years, because he'd appeared on the news at a rally for his daughter holding a sign that read, "Please treat my daughter Shelly kindly."

According to court documents, Pat Fitzgerald was "emotionally crushed" when he was told he could no long participate in the event. In turn, Shelly Fitzgerald was "wracked with guilt and anxiety."

Her case, the first of several gay employees to be fired by the Indianapolis Archdiocese, drew national attention to the issue of LGBTQ employment protections. 

Lynn Starkey, who was the co-director of guidance with Fitzgerald at Roncalli, also was fired because of her same-sex marriage. She filed a lawsuit against the school and archdiocese in July

Joshua Payne-Elliott, a world language and social studies teacher, was fired earlier this year from Cathedral High School. He settled with Cathedral, but is suing the archdiocese.

His husband, Layton Payne-Elliott, is a teacher at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School. The archdiocese told Brebeuf to fire him, but the school refused. 

Thompson issued a decree revoking Brebeuf's status as a Catholic institution, but that edict has been suspended by the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education in Rome, pending a final decision in Brebeuf's appeal. 

About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

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