Fitzgerald v. Roncalli High School and Archdiocese of Indianapolis

Becket Role:
Counsel
Case Start Date:
October 21, 2019
Deciding Court:
Southern District of Indiana
Original Court:
Southern District of Indiana
Practice Area(s):
,

Case Snapshot

Roncalli is a Catholic high school in Indianapolis that exists to transmit the Catholic faith to the next generation. To accomplish its religious mission, Roncalli asks all of its administrators, teachers, and guidance counselors to sign a contract agreeing to uphold Catholic Church teachings in word and deed. In 2018, however, the co-head of Roncalli’s guidance department, Shelly Fitzgerald, confirmed to the school that she was in a same-sex marriage in violation of her contract and of Catholic teaching. Roncalli declined to renew Fitzgerald’s contract for the following school year, and Fitzgerald sued Roncalli and the Archdiocese of Indianapolis alleging discrimination based on sexual orientation. Becket is defending the Church’s right to choose leaders for its schools who agree with Church teaching.

Status

This case is currently in the Southern District of Indiana. Becket has asked the court to wait to decide this case until the Supreme Court decides the threshold issue of whether sexual orientation is considered a protected class under Title VII of the Equal Rights Amendment in a related case, Bostock v. Clayton County Georgia.

Case Summary

Commitment to Catholic education

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis has been committed to learning, teaching, and sharing the Catholic faith in central and southern Indiana for over 175 years. In addition to providing tens of millions of dollars in vital social services, the Archdiocese operates a number of schools that provide a safe, high-quality education to thousands of low-income Indiana students. The results speak for themselves, with over 90% of all graduates going on to college, far outstripping public schools.

While Catholic schools provide a top-notch education, their central purpose is to transmit the Catholic faith to the next generation. Thus, it is crucial that educators in Catholic schools—especially administrators, teachers, and guidance counselors—respect and promote the Church’s teachings. For this reason, all educators at Roncalli sign an agreement to uphold the teachings of the Catholic Church in both their professional and private lives—serving as examples of the faith to both the students and the community alike.

A conflict of commitment

As Co-Director of Guidance at Roncalli High School, Shelly Fitzgerald was responsible for communicating the Catholic faith to students and families, and advising students both practically and spiritually as they discerned their vocational path at and after Roncalli. In August of 2018, Fitzgerald told Roncalli leadership that she was in, and intended to remain in, a same-sex marriage in violation of her contract and of Catholic teaching. When the time came to renew her contract, her fellow school leaders explained that they could not do so while she was living in opposition to Catholic teaching. Ms. Fitzgerald sued both the school and the Archdiocese, arguing that they had discriminated against her based on her sexual orientation.

Educating hearts and minds

Catholic education is designed to holistically form the student in heart, mind, and body. Accordingly, Catholic educators and guidance professionals are expected to go beyond simply teaching algebra, or helping students fill out college applications. They are charged with modeling a Christ-centered life and promoting the teachings of the Catholic Church in word and deed—in short, they are ministers of the faith to their students. If an educator chooses to live in a manner which demonstrates disagreement with Church teaching, that educator cannot properly communicate the faith to his or her students.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution grants church schools like Roncalli the right to choose who teaches the faith to the next generation, free from government interference, under a doctrine called the ministerial exception. The U.S. Supreme Court most recently articulated this doctrine in the unanimous 2012 decision Hosanna-Tabor, which protected a Lutheran church school’s right to choose its teachers. Here, Becket is defending the church’s First Amendment right to choose faithful teachers under the ministerial exception.

This case is currently in the Southern District of Indiana, where Roncalli and the Archdiocese are also represented by Jay Mercer of Fitzwater Mercer.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Religious Communities— Churches and religious organizations have a right to live, teach, and govern in accordance with the tenets of their faith. When the government unjustly interferes in internal church affairs, the separation of church and state is threatened. The First Amendment ensures a church’s right to self-definition and free association.