After 15 years of guidance counseling at the high school where she and her family graduated, Shelly Fitzgerald was fired after administrators learned of her marriage to a woman. Now, she’s suing the Archdiocese of Indianapolis for employment discrimination in an already tumultuous year for students and other instructors at Roncalli High School.
The lawsuit, filed Monday in federal court, claims she was subject to a hostile work environment, discrimination, and retaliation all tied to her sexual orientation. Fitzgerald told Out about the fateful meeting that took place towards the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year, where school officials said they received an anonymous tip that included her marriage license. She was given a few choices: divorce her wife and be ‘accompanied back’ to the church, quietly resign, or be fired swiftly if her identity became public.
Fitzgerald, the mother of 13-year-old daughter, chose her family and within days, she was placed on administrative leave before being banned from the Roncalli campus she’d long called home. By the end of the school year, her job as the guidance counseling director was terminated.
“I was devastated,” Fitzerald tells Out, adding that her firing felt like being disowned. “I grew up in this community and was a product of Catholic schools. My five siblings went [to Roncalli] … it wasn’t just a part of my job, it was part of my family.”
She said she couldn’t have ever imagined all of the events that would soon follow. School administrators also fired guidance counseling co-director Lynne Starkey because of her same-sex marriage. Starkey’s attorney, who’s representing her in a separate lawsuit, told the Indianapolis Star in July that Starkey’s marriage wasn’t a secret and never emerged as an issue, even after Roncalli’s principal visited her home before the controversy. The school also fired Kelley Fisher, a straight social worker who openly expressed support for her colleagues. (Fisher has also filed a discrimination and retaliation complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.)
And after years of volunteering at the school, Fitzgerald’s father was no longer allowed to participate because he took his daughter’s side.
Amid the controversy, a group of students said enough is enough, and rallied behind the school’s instructors and other LGBTQ+ students through activism and advocacy. They held forums to voice their concerns and created space to affirm LGBTQ+ people at Roncalli.
“It was my first experience working on LGBTQ+ issues, and a big role to step into, but before this I wasn’t out to that many people,” says Dominic Conover, who was a Roncalli senior at the time, and came out to the entire school during an assembly as a result of the scandal.
Ultimately, students’ efforts led to the formation of an LGBTQ+ nonprofit organization to support people in the Catholic community: Shelly’s Voice. However, in an attempt to silence them, officials threatened expulsion or firing for those who supported the teachers.
“There were so many students struggling with what happened Shelly and they worried about what would happen to them next if they got involved in LGBTQ+ activism or came out,” says Conover, who is now a first-year student at Butler University. “I wanted to be an example to them.”
Shelly’s Voice has since taken their cause into the local community and beyond, appearing at Pride parades, coordinating school rallies, leading letter-writing campaigns to church leaders, and speaking to officials at the Department of Education and meeting with legislators in Washington. The organization is actively fundraising for the fired counselors’ legal fees, with a Fall 2018 appearance on The Ellen Show netting a $25,000 donation towards what could become a very expensive legal battle.
“The Catholic Church is one of the biggest, richest organizations around the world and have money to put into these cases and make sure that they win,” Conover says, noting the $150,000 fundraising goal. “We want to make sure we have a fair trial.”
Indiana is one among many U.S. states where LGBTQ+ employees lack protection from being fired. Only 48 percent of LGBTQ+ people live in states with laws that prohibit such discrimination, according to the Movement Advancement Project. A total of 28 states don’t have laws on the books to protect LGBTQ+ from discrimination in employment, public accommodations, and housing, according to Freedom for All Americans.
The incidents at Roncalli High School aren’t the only known instances of LGBTQ+ employees losing their jobs at Catholic institutions recently. In June, Cathedral High School in Indianapolis fired Joshua Payne-Elliott, an openly gay, married teacher, citing that their failure to do so would jeopardize their religious values. Payne-Elliott has also filed a lawsuit against the archdiocese.
“We have a daunting task ahead of us … We want to work to make a difference. We’re not looking to change the Bible, not looking to change doctrine,” Fitzgerald tells Out. “We are just asking that if someone wants a seat at the table, that they not just be ousted for who they love and who they are.”