Catholic schools must be free to uphold the Church’s teachings, lawyers for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis said after a federal judge allowed a lawsuit against the archdiocese to proceed.

Judge Richard Young of the Southern District of Indiana ruled on March 31 that a former counselor at a Catholic school in the archdiocese, who was fired for contracting a same-sex marriage, can proceed with her discrimination lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

Shelly Fitzgerald, a guidance counselor and co-director of guidance at Roncalli Catholic High School in Indianapolis had been placed on administrative leave in 2018. School officials said that by previously contracting a same-sex marriage, Fitzgerald had violated their conduct policy that counselors uphold Church teaching. Her contract was not renewed when it expired later in 2019. Fitzgerald filed a discrimination lawsuit against the archdiocese.

In response, Becket – a legal firm which represents the archdiocese in a separate case before the Supreme Court – said on Tuesday that the school’s religious conduct policy is protected by the Constitution.

The high court “has repeatedly recognized that religious schools have a constitutional right to hire leaders who support the schools’ religious mission,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, in a statement provided to CNA on Tuesday. “We are confident that the judicial system will ultimately protect this basic right."

“If the First Amendment means anything, it means the government can’t punish the Catholic Church for asking Catholic educators to support Catholic teaching,” Goodrich said. 

Fitzgerald, who worked at Roncalli from 2004 until 2019, had civilly married another woman in 2014.

In 2017, both the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and Roncalli revised their guidance counselor contracts to include a ministry statement; the statement required counselors to abide by the teachings of the Church in their conduct.

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In August 2018, Roncalli officials met with Fitzgerald and told her they knew of her same-sex marriage contract. They gave Fitzgerald the options of resigning, dissolving her marriage contract, or maintaining discretion about her situation until her contract expired. Fitzgerald refused all three options, and she was placed on administrative leave. Nine months later in May 2019, school officials told her that her contract would not be renewed.

In October 2019, Fitzgerald sued the archdiocese, alleging sexual orientation discrimination, retaliation, and hostile workplace environment. Her lawyer argued that she had been treated differently by the school than other employees who had not abided by the Church’s teachings.

On March 31, Judge Young ruled that Fitzgerald’s lawsuit can proceed, and that the school and archdiocese were not exempt from federal civil rights laws against employment discrimination.

While Title VII has a “ministerial exemption” that bars the government from interfering in employment decisions for religious ministers, Young found that the exemption did not extend to the archdiocese’s motion to dismiss the case.  

The ministerial exemption, he wrote, “does not allow religious employers to discriminate on the basis of other protected characteristics, such as sexual orientation.”

Goodrich on Tuesday said that the religious conduct policy is a necessary part of the mission of churches and religious institutions.

“Catholic schools exist to uphold the dignity of all persons, including those who experience same-sex attraction, and to teach the Catholic faith to the next generation,” he said. “To accomplish this religious mission, Catholic schools ask their educators to uphold the Catholic faith by word and deed.”

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“If a school’s educators oppose core aspects of the Catholic faith, it undermines the school’s ability to accomplish its mission,” he said.

Kelley Fisher, a social worker who was contracted by Roncalli through Catholic Charities, publicly defended Fitzgerald and lost her job at the school. She filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Roncalli and the archdiocese.

The archdiocese stated to CNA in 2019 that “[i]f a school’s leaders reject core aspects of the Catholic faith, it undermines the school’s ability to accomplish its mission.”

Families “rely on the Archdiocese to uphold the fullness of Catholic teaching throughout its schools, and the Constitution fully protects the Church’s efforts to do so,” the archdiocese stated.

Another case involving the archdiocese is currently before the Supreme Court.

In the case of Layton Payne-Elliot, a math teacher at Brebeuf Jesuit High School, the archdiocese asked that his contract not be renewed once the school became aware of his same-sex marriage to Joshua Payne-Elliot, a teacher at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis.

After Brebeuf refused the instruction, Archbishop Charles Thompson revoked the school’s Catholic status. The school then appealed to the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education. In 2019, the Vatican suspended Archbishop Thompson’s decree while investigating the matter.

Cathedral High School, meanwhile, did not renew the contract of Joshua Payne-Elliot, at the behest of the archdiocese. That case is currently before the Indiana supreme court, as Payne-Elliot sued the archdiocese.