(OSV News) — A federal appeals court ruled July 13 that a Catholic high school and the Archdiocese of Indianapolis have a constitutional right to hire staff who will uphold core religious teachings.
The case, Fitzgerald v. Roncalli High School and Archdiocese of Indianapolis, involved a former co-director of guidance at a Catholic school who sued the school and the Archdiocese of Indianapolis after her contract was not renewed because she entered a same-sex union in violation of her contract and Catholic teaching.
“Today’s ruling is common-sense: decisions about who conveys the Catholic faith to Catholic school children are for the Church, not the government,” said Joseph Davis, counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented the defendant.
“Many parents entrust their children to religious schools precisely because those schools help to pass on the faith, and this victory ensures they remain free to do so,” he said in a statement about the ruling.
Crux of the case
In 2018, Shelly Fitzgerald, former co-director of guidance at Roncalli High School for nearly 15 years, had her employment terminated by the school after she confirmed that she was in a same-sex union. School officials said her conduct was prohibited by the agreement she signed with Roncalli and the school declined to renew her contract for the following year.
Fitzgerald filed a discrimination lawsuit in 2019 against the school and the archdiocese.
In September 2022, a district court threw out the lawsuit, noting that “Roncalli entrusted Fitzgerald to teach the Catholic faith and carry out” its religious mission. She appealed her case to the Seventh Circuit.
In the July 13 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit dismissed Fitzgerald’s case, saying that the district court properly granted the defendants summary judgment on the ministerial exception that protects a religious school’s hiring and firing practices from government intrusion.
The Roncalli contract described school employees as ministers of faith. It also contained a clause stipulating that employees would forfeit their positions if they engaged in conduct that did not adhere to “the moral or religious teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.”
The court’s ruling
In its ruling, the court said that “there is no genuine dispute that Fitzgerald played a crucial role on the Administrative Council, which was responsible for at least some of Roncalli’s daily ministry, education, and operations.”
The court stated that Fitzgerald “helped develop the criteria used to evaluate guidance counselors, which included religious components like assisting students in faith formation and attending church services.” Fitzgerald “held herself out as a minister, further supporting the district court’s finding,” the court document added.
Last summer, the same court threw out a similar lawsuit by another former Roncalli guidance counselor in Starkey v. Roncalli High School and Archdiocese of Indianapolis. The court said the case had to be dismissed for the same reasons it had been dismissed in District Court, that the school employee’s case did not stand up to the principle of ministerial exception. “That decision goes a long way in resolving this case,” the court’s July 13 ruling said.
“Religious schools exist to pass on the faith to the next generation, and to do that, they need the freedom to choose leaders who are fully committed to their religious mission,” Davis said in the Becket statement. “The precedent keeps piling up: Catholic schools can ask Catholic school teachers and administrators to be fully supportive of Catholic teaching.”
Catholic News Service contributed to this report.