Religious schools have the right to require that their teachers should reflect the values of the institution, a federal judge in Indiana ruled Friday, rejecting a discrimination lawsuit filed by a gay teacher fired by a Roman Catholic high school.
Judge Richard L. Young, a Clinton appointee, denied the claims in guidance counselor Shelly Fitzgerald‘s lawsuit two months after her spouse, Lynn Starkey, lost a similar case at the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.
Both women were fired from their jobs as counselors at Roncalli High School, affiliated with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis.
Ms. Fitzgerald worked for the school for 15 years beginning in 2004.
In 2019, the school fired her when it became aware of Ms. Fitzgerald‘s “marriage to a female spouse,” as the ruling noted. Such a marriage violates Catholic teaching and was grounds for dismissal, the school said.
The judge wrote that Ms. Fitzgerald, in May 2018, signed a “School Guidance Ministry Contract” with the Roncalli school. That contract specified she was required “to communicate the Catholic faith to students, pray with students, and teach and celebrate Catholic traditions,” as well as serve as what the school termed “a minister of the faith.”
The school put Ms. Fitzgerald on paid administrative leave for the balance of her contract, and then declined to renew her employment.
Ms. Fitzgerald sued, claiming retaliation for engaging in “protected conduct” and violation of federal employment laws.
The school and the archdiocese responded that the “ministerial exception” granted under the 2012 Hosanna-Tabor 9-0 ruling by the United States Supreme Court blunts the employee’s claims.
That case said federal discrimination laws do not apply to religious organizations’ selection of religious leaders.
The latest ruling “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,” said Luke Goodrich, senior counsel and vice president at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public-interest law firm that represented the defendants. “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,” he added.
A spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church & State, a public-interest law firm that represented Ms. Fitzgerald, said “we are still discussing any possible appeal” of the district court ruling.
“Under this Court’s wrong decision, if a Catholic school jams a few duties that sound religious into any job description, from cook to janitor to secular guidance counselor, that person can be fired for any reason and without any recourse to the many civil rights laws that protect employees from the kind of discrimination that we saw here,” Americans United spokesman Andrew Seidel said.