Fired lesbian guidance counselor sues Indianapolis archdiocese

Shelly Fitzgerald is at least the third gay former employee of an Indianapolis Catholic school to sue the city's archdiocese this year.
Image: Shelly Fitzgerald
Shelly Fitzgerald.WTHR
By Tim Fitzsimons

A former guidance counselor at an Indianapolis Catholic high school who was fired after marrying another woman is suing the school and the city's archdiocese.

Shelly Fitzgerald’s federal lawsuit, filed on Monday, names Roncalli High School and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis as defendants. It alleges that by firing her, "defendants explicitly and impermissibly have discriminated because of sex."

"Though the Defendants claim they took adverse actions against Fitzgerald because her actions allegedly contradicted the teaching of the Catholic Church," the suit states, "they took and take no similar actions against male and/or heterosexual employees whose actions also contradict the teaching of the Catholic Church."

Fitzgerald married her wife, Victoria, in 2014. Fitzgerald had worked at Roncalli High School for 15 years before being placed on administrative leave last year because of her same-sex marriage.

In 2018, Fitzgerald told WTHR, a local NBC News affiliate, that she lived a private, married life and was essentially outed as gay when someone sent her same-sex marriage license to a school administrator, who shared it with the archbishop. She was given an ultimatum: resign or “dissolve” her marriage.

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"I told them, you know, I've been quiet for 15 years so why is this different? I mean I've hidden everything from social media. I've hidden from people I love because I knew I was at risk for losing my job over this," Fitzgerald said to WTHR. "I have no intention of resigning. I have no intention of being quiet. And I didn't need the counsel that they were offering from priests. My goal, my intent, is just to be a catalyst for change. That's it."

She was later fired.

At the time, Twitter users claiming to be graduates and current students weighed in and said that Fitzgerald had been an affirming presence at Roncalli High. A "confirmed queer" Twitter user named Kelsey said Fitzgerald was "the only accepting presence" at school.

Last year, Fitzgerald was a grand marshal for the IndyPride parade and rode on a float with a rainbow heart emblazoned with "Shelly's Voice," which is a student-led organization to liberalize the conservative church's stance toward LGBTQ employees — many of whom are Catholic, like Fitzgerald. The Indiana-based organization states that "we know, one day, the Church will realize that their discriminatory habits are unjust and not moral. We want to be there to help push that realization along."

Fitzgerald is not the only gay staffer in a legal battle with the archdiocese over workplace discrimination. Lynn Starkey, another lesbian guidance counselor who worked at Roncalli High, was fired in May and filed a lawsuit alleging that the school was hostile toward homosexual students, faculty and staff.

Joshua and Layton Payne-Elliott, a married couple who worked at different Indiana Catholic schools, faced being fired after the diocese was alerted about their marriage.

Cathedral High School did fire Joshua, on orders from the archdiocese. But Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School, where Layton teaches, did not fired him because the more liberal Jesuit order in charge refused to follow the archdiocese's orders. As a result, Brebeuf is no longer considered a “Catholic” school by the archdiocese, although that decision is suspended pending an internal church appeal.

Fitzgerald’s lawsuit, filed Monday, seeks unspecified damages, including for lost wages and emotional distress.

The archdiocese said in a statement that the Supreme Court “has repeatedly recognized that religious schools have a constitutional right to hire leaders who support the schools’ religious mission.”

This precedent, better known as the "ministerial exception," allows religious institutions to bypass federal civil rights law and discriminate against protected classes when hiring "ministerial employees." This is how, for example, the Catholic Church is able to decline to hire women to be priests without violating laws banning employment discrimination "on the basis ... of sex."

Fitzgerald's lawsuit, however, alleges that the Indianapolis archdiocese sent a May 2016 email to the principal of Roncalli High that said its lawyers believed “school counselors and social workers do not meet the definition for the ministerial exemption.”

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The Associated Press contributed.