Court's Ruling Against Lesbian Teacher Marks a Major Win For Religious Freedom

Emma Campbell | July 17, 2023
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The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against a former employee of a Catholic school, who alleged her contract was not renewed because of the disclosure of her same-sex marriage.

Michelle Fitzgerald filed a lawsuit against Roncalli High School and the Archdiocese of Indianapolis in 2019, after the school informed her that they would not be renewing her contract because she was in a same-sex marriage. Fitzgerald had worked as a guidance counselor at the school for 14 years before school officials became aware of her marriage, which was in violation of the terms of agreement with the school.

Fitzgerald argued that the school’s termination was sex discrimination, and asserted that because her role at the school was “religious,” she had earned a religious exemption that prevented the school from firing her on terms of faith. In his 15-page opinion, Judge Richard Young determined that Fitzgerald’s claim to a religious exemption was negated by the school’s clearly communicated policy that same-sex relationships were prohibited for employees.

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“[T]he parties do not dispute that Roncalli and the Archdiocese had a non-pretextual religious policy against employees entering into same-sex marriages and that Fitzgerald was terminated because she did so,” Young said in the opinion. “As such, Fitzgerald’s Title VII claims would be barred by the religious employer exemption.”

The court determined that even though Fitzgerald’s role was demonstrably religious, her own admissions weakened her claim because they proved that she continually contradicted the religion she promoted. For example, Fitzgerald admitted that she exaggerated her claims of involvement with certain religious components of the school in order to get a raise, rather than out of true belief.

“Even if we accept that she exaggerated on her evaluation and did not actually perform these religious duties, the fact that she mentioned these activities in her self-evaluation to get a raise supports that she understood these criteria to be important to the school,” Young wrote. “As the defendants persuasively explain, ‘the very fact that she would exaggerate about performing religious tasks to get a raise only underscores that it was Roncalli’s expectation that she perform them.’”

Joseph Davis, counsel at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, praised the decision as a win for religious liberty.

“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. “The precedent keeps piling up: Catholic schools can ask Catholic school teachers and administrators to be fully supportive of Catholic teaching.”

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