Court could weaken discrimination protections

Counselors and teachers at Indianapolis Catholic high schools looked to have a solid case when they sued after being fired for being married to same-sex partners. But the legal ground may be shifting beneath them.

Arguments heard Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court could result in religious schools being given a blank check for widespread employment discrimination.

Supreme Court Building

“It’s important,” said Dan Conkle, a constitutional law expert at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law. “And depending on how the court decides, it could have pretty dramatic implications for parochial school teachers.”

The case heard Tuesday involves two fifth-grade teachers at California Catholic schools who said they were unjustly fired, one because of her age and the other because she needed time off for cancer treatment. The schools countered with the so-called ministerial exception, which says ministers and others who perform important religious functions aren’t covered by anti-discrimination laws.

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Bill to ban school voucher discrimination should be heard

Legislators have filed around 900 bills in the current session of the Indiana General Assembly, and there won’t be time in the short session to hear them all. One that should be a priority is Senate Bill 250, Sen. J.D. Ford’s proposal to ban discrimination by schools that receive state funding.

Sen. J.D. Ford, head shot

Sen. J.D. Ford

The legislation pertains to Indiana’s $161 million voucher program, which funds tuition scholarships for students who attend private schools, nearly all of which are religious schools. Some of those schools discriminate against students and employees based on sexual orientation, disability and other factors.

“No Hoosier should have their own tax dollars used against them in a discriminatory way,” Ford, an Indianapolis Democrat, said in a news release.

The issue gained attention when guidance counselors and a teacher at two Indianapolis Catholic high schools lost their jobs after church officials discovered they were in same-sex marriages. Those two schools, Roncalli and Cathedral, have received over $12 million in state voucher funding in the past six years.

Also, some voucher-funded Christian schools condemn homosexuality and require families and employees to sign “statements of faith.” Some voucher schools do not serve students with disabilities.

SB 250 would bar state voucher funding for schools that discriminate by disability, race, color, gender, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, religion, or ancestry. (Current law prohibits discrimination by race, color or national origin).

At a news conference to promote the bill, Ford was joined by Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick and Dominic Conover, a 2019 Roncalli High School graduate who said school officials warned him to be silent after he organized support for the school’s counselors.

McCormick said it’s contrary to Hoosier hospitality for the state to fund schools that turn away students and staff because of who they are and whom they love.

“We’re talking about Indiana being a state where people want to work and live,” she said. “That should be for everyone who wants to come here and feel accepted and respected.”

Ford introduced a similar bill as a freshman legislator in 2019, but it didn’t get a hearing. Why might this year be different? For one thing, Ford said he has developed relationships that will help him make the case for the bill. For another, the issue has received a lot of attention, with fired Roncalli guidance director Shelly Fitzgerald the subject of media stories and an appearance on the “Ellen” show.

Religious conservatives have a lot of clout with the General Assembly, and it’s likely that the Republicans who control the House and Senate would like for the bill to die a quiet death.

But lawmakers also answer to their constituents. If you think state-funded discrimination is an issue that the legislature should at least discuss, contact your representatives and let them know.

Roncalli flap could prompt debate on vouchers and discrimination

Hats off to State Rep. Dan Forestal. Responding to a flap over Roncalli High School’s threat to fire a popular guidance counselor, the Indianapolis Democrat said Wednesday that he will introduce legislation to outlaw discrimination by private schools that receive voucher funding from the state.

There’s not much chance the proposal will become law, but it could spark debate about one of the most offensive aspect of Indiana’s voucher program: Schools that receive millions of dollars in state funding are free to discriminate in employment and in the enrollment of students.

The controversy at Roncalli, a Catholic high school in Indianapolis, involves Shelly Fitzgerald, a longtime counselor who was placed on paid leave after school and church officials learned she had been married to a woman since 2014. She told news media that school officials said she could dissolve her marriage, resign, be fired or keep quiet and leave her job at the end of the year.

Roncalli students have received almost $6 million in state tuition vouchers in the past four years, according to reports from the Indiana Department of Education.

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