Fired Roncalli school counselor files lawsuit

A second Roncalli guidance counselor has filed a federal lawsuit against the southside high school and Archdiocese of Indianapolis after they said they would not renew her contract because she is married to a woman.

After coworker Shelli Fitzgerald was placed on leave at the Catholic school toward the beginning of the school year for her same-sex marriage, Roncalli guidance counselor Lynn Starkey, who is also in a same-sex marriage, suspected she would be next.

Starkey, who worked for Roncalli High School for 39 years, filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission in November after she started to experience hostility in her work environment, said Chris Stake, her lawyer.

In March, she was told the school would not renew her contract for the upcoming school year, and in July, the federal commission ruled Starkey had a right to sue. Last week, she did.

The lawsuit claims discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in employment based on gender, race, color, national origin and religion. It also claims discrimination under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits gender discrimination in any federally funded activity.

Roncalli, though it is a private school, gets federal funding through the special needs program and the National School Lunch Program, the lawsuit said.

Because Starkey’s marriage violated the beliefs of the Catholic Church, Roncalli had the right to terminate her employment, Archdiocese of Indianapolis spokesperson Greg Otolski said in April, relaying a statement from the Archdiocese.

“Ms. Starkey is currently in breach of her contract with Roncalli High School,” Otolski said in an email. “She is in a civil union that is considered ‘contrary to a valid marriage as seen through the eyes of the Catholic Church.’ The 2019-20 contract language will contain the same language. Therefore, Ms. Starkey could not in good faith enter into the contract as long as she is unable to abide by the terms of the contract.”

Stake says the school acted in violation of Title VII.

“We think that their policies do not immunize them from the protections of Title VII and currently the (ruling) on Title VII prohibits discrimination on sexual orientation,” Stake said. “If they’re saying a person who is gay or lesbian cannot get married when a straight or heterosexual person can without violating their contract, we think that’s discrimination.”

On Aug. 10, 2018, Roncalli President Joseph Hollowell and Roncalli Principal Chuck Weisenbach told Fitzgerald she either needed to resign, divorce her wife or keep quiet about her marriage, after which her contract would not be renewed. If she didn’t keep quiet, she would be fired, they told her. Fitzgerald chose not to resign, divorce her wife or keep quiet, and she was placed on paid leave.

It was then that Starkey began feeling the pressure of a hostile work environment, the lawsuit said.

Although Weisenbach and other Roncalli administrators were aware of Starkey’s marriage before last year, Starkey attended a meeting on Aug. 13, 2018, and was reminded by Superintendent of Archdiocesan Schools Gina Fleming of the definition of a valid marriage in the eyes of the Catholic Church. Fleming said the purpose of marriage is to procreate, the lawsuit said.

In Fitzgerald’s absence, Starkey had to pick up her workload in addition to handling her own responsibilities. On March 6, Starkey was told her contract would not be renewed for the 2019-20 school year, the lawsuit said.

“The work environment at Roncalli was objectively and subjectively hostile towards homosexual students, faculty and staff, and sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the terms of conditions of employment,” the lawsuit said.

Because sexual orientation is not explicitly listed in the Civil Rights Act, lawsuits have had mixed results in legal proceedings, according to the American Bar Association.

The commission, for example, has ruled both ways, ruling that sexual orientation was not tied to Title VII in Simonton v Runyun (1999), but ruled in the 2015 Baldwin v Foxx case that discrimination based on sexual orientation is inherently based on gender. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, has not ruled on the issue, meaning there is no guiding decision, according to the bar association.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court took up cases regarding sexual orientation-based discrimination, but will likely not reach a decision until June.

Fitzgerald will also file a federal lawsuit within the next 30 to 60 days, and will have similar discrimination claims against Roncalli, said David Page, her lawyer.

Fitzgerald got national attention when student-advocates at Roncalli formed a support group titled “Shelly’s Voice,” with the group featured on the Ellen DeGeneres show. A parent of one of the students said students would not be commenting on the matter anymore.

Roncalli has 60 days, to respond to Starkey’s lawsuit with a countersuit, after which the two sides will exchange documents in the discovery process of the case, said Kathleen DeLaney, her lawyer.