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Appeals court reverses judge's decision in lawsuit filed by teacher fired for same-sex marriage

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Posted at 6:20 PM, Nov 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-23 21:22:53-05

INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana Court of Appeals has reversed and remanded a Marion County superior court's decision to dismiss a complaint against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

Joshua Payne-Elliott, a former Cathedral High School teacher who was fired for his same-sex marriage, filed an appeal after a special judge dismissed his lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Indianapolis earlier this year.

In a document filed Tuesday, the appeals court says the trial court committed "reversible error" in three areas, including dismissing Payne-Elliott’s complaint with prejudice.

Payne-Elliott worked at Cathedral from 2006 until his contract was terminated in June 2019. Payne-Elliott married his same-sex partner in 2017.

"A court with general authority to hear matters like employment disputes is not ousted of subject matter or personal jurisdiction because the defendant pleads a religious defense," the document read. "Our Supreme Court thus reversed the dismissal of the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction ... jurisdiction should continue unless it is apparent that this dispute cannot be resolved under ‘neutral principles of law.’”

Luke Goodrich, VP & senior counsel at Becket, who is also one of the attorneys for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, released the following statement:

"The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the constitutional right of Catholic schools to hire teachers who fully support the schools’ Catholic mission. Today’s ruling doesn’t address this core issue, and we’re confident that when the courts finally do, they will respect this fundamental right. If the First Amendment means anything, it means the Catholic Church can ask Catholic school teachers to support Church teaching."

Greg Nevins, Lambda Legal Senior Counsel, released the following statement. Lambda Legal, with pro-bono co-counsel, submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Payne-Elliott’s appeal.

“What a wonderful unanimous appellate court ruling. Joshua Payne-Elliott just wanted the chance to make his case in court. The Indiana Court of Appeals today ruled that he will get that opportunity. The court realized, as we had argued in our brief, that it was quite premature for the lower court to dismiss this lawsuit under the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution without discovery and the ability to develop the factual record to determine whether the ministerial exception applies to Payne-Elliott’s work as a teacher of world language and social studies to high school students.

“The Archdiocese had sought to wield the First Amendment as some form of absolute immunity from any lawsuit challenging its actions. The Free Exercise Clause is not so broad. At a minimum, Payne-Elliott should be given the opportunity to present his case. His 13 years teaching at Cathedral High deserves no less, and we are grateful that the court agrees.”

WRTV has reached out to Payne-Elliott's attorneys for comment and is waiting to hear back.