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Indiana Supreme Court upholds firing of Cathedral High School teacher in same-sex marriage

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Posted at 1:33 PM, Aug 31, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-01 12:10:18-04

INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana Supreme Court has upheld the firing of a former Cathedral High School teacher because of his same-sex marriage.

In its 4-0 opinion by Geoffrey G. Justice, the court said the school is protected by the church autonomy doctrine under the First Amendment and therefore was within its right to fire Joshua Payne-Elliott.

The doctrine protects the right of religious institutions to operate independently of government interference. This includes the right to select their members and choose their employees.

All justices concurred with the opinion but Justice Loretta Rush, who did not participate in the vote.

Payne-Elliott sued the Archdiocese of Indianapolis after he was fired from his teaching position in June 2019 because of his marriage to another man "at the direction of the Archdiocese," according to the lawsuit.

He worked at Cathedral High School as a world language and social studies teacher from August 2006 to June 2019.

An attorney representing Payne-Elliott said the Archdiocese "discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation and retaliated against him for opposing sexual orientation discrimination."

Three days after Payne-Elliott accepted and signed a new teaching contract, he was told the school was expecting a letter from the Archdiocese stating Cathedral needed to "adopt and enforce morals clause language used in teacher contracts" in order to be recognized as a catholic school and keep its tax-exempt status, according to the lawsuit.

On June 20, 2020, Brebeuf Jesuit, where Payne-Elliott's spouse worked, said it was declining the Archdiocese's directive to fire his spouse, a "highly capable and qualified teacher," because he was in a "civilly-recognized same-sex marriage."

The next day, the Archbishop issued a decree and said Brebeuf Jesuit can't use the Catholic name and would no longer be recognized as a Catholic institution.

And two days later, Payne-Elliott was fired by Cathedral.

"On June 23, 2019, Cathedral was terminating his employment. The president stated that the sole reason for his firing was that 'the Archbishop directed that we [Cathederal] can't have someone with a public same-sex marriage here and remain Catholic,'" the court's opinion states.

In December 2020, the Indiana Supreme Court denied the Archdiocese of Indianapolis' request to dismiss the lawsuit and appointed a special judge. That judge dismissed his lawsuit, saying the court lacked jurisdiction over the subject matter and failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.

In May 2021, Payne-Elliott filed an appeal in an attempt to overturn the judge's dismissal. The Indiana Court of Appeals then reversed and remanded the judge's decision.

In its opinion, the Supreme Court found the trial court "erred" by dismissing Payne-Elliott's lawsuit, saying "A court with general authority to hear matters like employment disputes is not ousted of subject-matter jurisdiction just because the defendant asserts a religious defense."

The court's opinion also states the trial judge's second reason for dismissal, which challenged the legal sufficiency of Payne-Elliott's claim, was not proper.

"Here, as grounds for dismissal, the Archdiocese asserted three affirmative defenses: church autonomy, freedom of expressive association, and the ministerial exception. Based on the complaint and its attachments, we hold that Payne-Elliott has pleaded all elements of the Archdiocese's church-autonomy defense. Because the Archdiocese is entitled to dismissal on this ground, we need not pass on its other two defenses," the opinion states.

It continues, "This doctrine’s vital protection for religious institutions is not unlimited, however ... the church-autonomy doctrine does not provide an automatic per se defense simply because a religious organization invokes it.

Both Payne-Elliott, his attorney Kathleen Delaney and Becket Law, who represented the Archdiocese, released statements Wednesday evening.

“While we are disappointed by today’s decision, we would like to make clear that the Archdiocese of Indianapolis ordered the school to breach my valid, legal employment contract – a contract that the school had renewed three times after the school was aware of the relationship. We would also like the citizens of Indiana to know that millions of taxpayer dollars are being redirected each year from public schools (where teachers have enforceable contract rights and rights to be free from discrimination) to private schools which target LGBTQ employees. We fear for the well-being of LGBTQ students and faculty in Catholic schools."

Joshua Payne-Elliott
“We lament this decision’s movement towards immunity from civil liability for religious institutions that discriminate against their employees. The Court did, however, expressly allow Mr. Payne-Elliott to file a new complaint and start the case anew. We are evaluating all options and will come to a thoughtful, well-researched decision in consultation with our client about next steps."
Kathleen A. DeLaney
“The court’s decision today was a commonsense ruling in favor of our most fundamental rights. Religious schools will only be able to pass down the faith to the next generation if they can freely receive guidance from their churches on what their faith is. We are grateful the court recognized this healthy form of separation of church and state.”

Luke Goodrich, VP & senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

WRTV Digital Producers Andrew Smith, James Howell Jr., Katie Cox and Michelle Kaufman contributed to this report.