Court ruling on LGBTQ workers gives hope to Indy educators fired from Catholic schools

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — A Monday ruling by the Supreme Court that says the Civil Rights Act covers gay and transgender workers has some impact on educators who lost their jobs at Catholic high schools in Indianapolis — but not immediately.

The educators in question are Shelly Fitzgerald and Lynn Starkey, a pair of guidance counselors from Roncalli High School, and Joshua Payne-Elliott, a teacher from Cathedral High School.

Kathleen DeLaney, an attorney for Starkey and Payne-Elliott, said if the Supreme Court would have ruled the other way, it would have effectively ended the ongoing cases.

“It was a very important and landmark decision today to fully and unequivocally recognize the dignity of every American, no matter who they are and who they love and to take a stand that discrimination in any form will not be accepted, at least in the workplace,” DeLaney said.

Professor Jennifer Drobac at the IU McKinney School of Law said because the Catholic Church considers those educators to be ministers and part of the school’s religious mission, Monday’s ruling doesn’t affect them directly, as opposed to if they were janitors or accountants.

“This decision does not address religious employees who have a mission to forward the philosophy and teachings of the organization,” Drobac said.

But DeLaney said the ministerial exception is before the Supreme Court right now, thanks to a couple cases out of California. Under normal circumstances — rather than current precautions due to the coronavirus — the decision would be expected by June 30, but it’s unclear when the ruling will be released.

“This decision validates our theory that discrimination against gay teachers is illegal as a fundamental concept and if the court had ruled the other way, that those discrimination claims would have been lost,” DeLaney said.

WISH-TV reached out Monday evening to the Archdiocese of Indianapolis for a comment about the Supreme Court decision but was told it was too late in the day.

For most other Hoosier employers, the Supreme Court decision takes effect immediately. Now, those employers must monitor their own actions, as well as maintain a safe workplace for all employees.

Drobac said there’s even a small window for people who have been recently fired to file suit if they believe their termination is a result of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Although every case is different, Drobac said key factors can include the reasoning an employer provides for termination, harassment from other employees or circumstantial evidence based on timing and when a supervisor becomes aware of one’s sexual orientation.

Because it is not a new law, she advises anyone who feels like they are being unfairly treated or being harrassed to speak up immediately.

Drobac said because the Supreme Court ruling was pretty straightforward and relied on a simple definition of sex, the decision should immediately effect other areas, including housing and education, where discrimination has a similar prohibition.

“This will have a ripple effect in the community, and it should. If we are to be a civil society, we need to recognize the civil rights of our brothers and sisters,” Drobac said.

Referencing the current Black Lives Matter movement, Drobac traces Monday’s decision to African-American women who were successful with Supreme Court decisions in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the Civil Rights Act.

DeLaney said the clause “because of sex,” was inserted as a ‘poison pill’ by an anti-Civil Rights lawmaker from Virginia with the hope it would kill the bill’s passage. Instead, it became the key phrase, which resulted in Monday’s ruling.

As for her clients, she said Payne-Elliott’s suit in state court is in the information-sharing phase of discovery. His lawsuit is in state court because he’s suing the archdiocese for interfering with his employment, not his employer directly.

Starkey and Fitzgerald both filed in federal court. The archdiocese has asked a judge for an early dismissal. DeLaney said both sides are waiting on a ruling.