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Catholic school has right to dismiss guidance counselor in a same-sex marriage, Judge rules

Roncalli High School
Roncalli High School of Indianapolis, Indiana. |

A federal court has ruled that a Catholic in Indiana can lawfully refuse to renew the contract of a guidance counselor in a same-sex marriage.

Judge Richard Young of the U.S. District Court of Southern Indiana ruled that Roncalli High School and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis have a "ministerial exception" to choose school leaders who uphold Catholic teachings. 

The ministerial exception is a legal principle that exempts churches and religious institutions from discrimination lawsuits from employees who perform religious functions. The exception is designed to protect religious institutions from government influence. 

Former Roncalli guidance counselor Shelly Fitzgerald filed the lawsuit in October 2019.

In 2018, the school found out she was in a same-sex marriage in violation of her contract and Catholic teaching, after which the school declined to renew her contract for the following year.

In her lawsuit, Fitzgerald alleges that the school discriminated against her. Having worked at the school for 15 years, Fitzgerald had been with her partner for over 20 years. 

Young, an appointee of former President Bill Clinton, wrote, "Roncalli entrusted Fitzgerald to teach the Catholic faith and carry out Roncalli's religious mission."

"Fitzgerald's employment agreement and Roncalli's description of Fitzgerald's expected duties are, alone, sufficient to resolve this case," the opinion states.

"Fitzgerald's employment agreement was a 'teaching ministry contract' and Fitzgerald
agreed to '[f]aithfully perform all duties of a [t]eacher in the school.'"  

The counselor contends in her legal filings that her position was never categorized as a "ministerial" position and that her role didn't require religious instruction. 

Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at the religious freedom legal group Becket, which represents the archdiocese, called the judge's opinion a "common-sense ruling" that is a victory for "every religious institution seeking to instill their faith in the next generation."

"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," said Goodrich. "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."

"Teachers, counselors, and other school staff have an important role in students' lives," Goodrich stated. "We are glad the court decided to let Roncalli decide for itself who should have that responsibility."

In 2018, another former Roncalli counselor, Lynn Starkey, filed a similar lawsuit.

A three-judge panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled in favor of the archdiocese and Roncalli in July, rejecting Starkey's lawsuit and upholding a lower court ruling. 

"For more than 30 years, Roncalli's employment contracts included a morals clause, and all evidence shows that the school considered Starkey a minister and entrusted her with religious duties," Circuit Judge Michael Brennan wrote at the time.

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