District Court Holds That First Amendment Religion Clause Bars Discrimination Claims By Guidance Counselor Who Was Fired For Same Sex Marriage

CATEGORY: Private Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education
DATE: Nov 07, 2022

Michelle Fitzgerald worked at Roncalli High School (School) in Indiana for fifteen years. She began working as a guidance counselor and was later promoted to Co-Director of the Guidance Department. She primarily assisted students with academics, class scheduling, college planning, and career counseling.

In 2018, Fitzgerald signed a “School Guidance Counselor Ministry Contract.” The contract incorporated the faculty handbook, which stated guidance counselors were expected to assist students in strengthening their Christian development. The contract also required Fitzgerald to communicate the Catholic faith to students, pray with students, and celebrate Catholic traditions. Three months after signing the ministry contract, the School learned that Fitzgerald was married to a woman. The School placed her on paid administrative leave for the remainder of her contract and did not renew her contract.

Fitzgerald sued the School and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis (Archdiocese) alleging, among other claims, discrimination, retaliation, and hostile work environment under Title VII, and retaliation under Title IX. The School and the Archdiocese filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the ministerial exception barred all of Fitzgerald’s claims. The ministerial exception protects religious institutions from certain employment law claims. The defense stems from the First Amendment Religion Clauses that protect the right of religious institutions to manage the religious institutions’ employment relationships with their “ministers.” Whether an employee qualifies as a minister is a fact-intensive inquiry. Fundamental to this analysis are the employee’s duties, and whether they are religious in nature.

Fitzgerald argued that the School never entrusted her with religious teaching duties and never engaged in religious teaching. For example, the Co-Director of guidance did not have any religious duties in her supervisory or guidance counselor role. She also claimed she never prayed or discussed religious doctrine as part of her work, and that students did not come to her with religious or spiritual issues.

However, the trial court granted the School’s and Archdiocese’s motion for summary judgment. In ruling in favor of the School and Archdioceses, the trial court relied on precedent from a Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals case in which Fitzgerald’s former colleague, Lynn Starkey, also sued the Archdiocese after she was fired for being in a same-sex marriage. (Starkey v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Inc. (7th Cir. 2022) 41 F.4th 931.) Starkey held that the ministerial exception involves an analysis of “what an employee is entrusted to do, not simply what acts an employee did.”

The court found that Fitzgerald’s employment agreement and the School’s description of Fitzgerald’s expected duties made clear that the School entrusted Fitzgerald to teach the Catholic faith and carry out the School’s religious mission. The employment agreement was a “teaching ministry contract.” The faculty code of conduct indicated that faculty were expected to assist students in “strengthening their Christian development” and “foster the spiritual growth” of the students. Moreover, guidance counselors were charged with “leading students toward Christian maturity and with teaching the Word of God.”

The court noted that a high school guidance counselor is a job that is predominantly secular. However, because Fitzgerald’s employment agreement and the School’s faculty handbook indicated that the School entrusted Fitzgerald with shaping the School’s religious mission, the court held that the ministerial exception applied.

Fitzgerald v. Roncalli High School, Inc. and Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Inc. (S.D. Ind. September 30, 2022), No. 1:19-cv-04291-RLY-TAB.

Note: While this case is from Indiana, the ministerial exception may apply to employees of religious institutions in California, including religious schools.

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