State Supreme Court Upholds Firing of Catholic High School Teacher in Same-Sex Marriage

By Casey Smith

The Indiana Supreme Court ruled Wednesday to uphold the Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis’s decision to fire a Cathedral High School teacher for being in a same-sex marriage.

In a 4-0 decision, the court found the Archdiocese has autonomy protection under the First Amendment, which allows churches to decide matters of faith and doctrine without government interference.

Chief Justice Loretta Rush did not participate in the case.

State Supreme Court justices side with Archdiocese

“Religious freedom protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution encompasses the right of religious institutions ‘to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government,’” Justice Geoffrey Slaughter wrote in the court’s opinion. “This principle, known as the church-autonomy doctrine … applies in this case and requires its dismissal.”

Slaughter held that the Archdiocese’s communications with Cathedral High about the teacher’s termination fell under internal Church policy and administration

He added that the school had to choose to “either retain its recognition as a Catholic school by following the archdiocese’s instruction on what was required to be recognized as a Catholic school or forfeit continued recognition.”

“This choice reflects the archdiocese’s authority to declare which schools are Catholic,” Slaughter said in the opinion.

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis applauded the ruling, saying the court had “unanimously protected (its) right to ensure students and families receive an authentic Catholic education.”

Background on the case

Joshua Payne-Elliott worked as a foreign language and social studies teacher at Cathedral for 13 years before he was terminated in June 2019.

His lawsuit alleged the Archdiocese of Indianapolis illegally ended his employment as a result of his 2017 same-sex marriage to a math teacher at a separate private Catholic school, Brebeuf Jesuit Prepatory School.

Payne-Elliott maintained he was fired after the Archdiocese ordered all Catholic schools under its purview to enforce a “morality clause” barring employees from same-sex marriages.

The former teacher said in his lawsuit that he was offered a new teaching contract in May 2019 before he was terminated a month later.

He settled with the school over his employment discrimination claims and filed a lawsuit against the Archdiocese in August 2019.

The Archdiocese additionally sought to terminate Payne-Elliott’s husband, Layton Payne-Elliott, from his role at Brebeuf, but the school declined to fire him. In June 2019, Archbishop Charles C. Thompson responded by dropping the school from the Archdiocese. The Vatican temporarily suspended that decision in September 2019, however. Brebeuf was reinstated as a Catholic Jesuit school pending a final decision.

“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,” Joshua Payne-Elliott said in a statement Wednesday.

“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,” he continued.

Luke Goodrich, the attorney for the Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis, tweeted after the court’s decision: “Today’s decision is a powerful dose of common sense. It is also a powerful application of the principle of “separation of church and state,” rightly understood: The state can’t insert itself into the internal governance of the church. Catholic schools exist to teach the faith to the next generation–and they can’t carry out that mission if the law forces them to employ teachers who reject core aspects of the Catholic faith.”

Kathleen DeLaney, one of Joshua Payne-Elliott’s attorneys, said in a statement that legal counsel are now “evaluating all options” and determining next steps. The ruling provides Joshua Payne-Elliott with 10 days to amend his case before a Marion County judge.

“We lament this decision’s movement towards immunity from civil liability for religious institutions that discriminate against their employees,” DeLaney said.

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