An Indiana appeals court sided with a gay teacher fired from his job at a Catholic high school for being married to another man, finding that a lower court had erred in dismissing the man’s lawsuit.
Joshua Payne-Elliott, a former world language and social studies teacher at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis from 2006 to 2019, was terminated after officials within the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, specifically Archbishop Charles Thompson, learned that he had married his husband, Layton Payne-Elliott, in 2017.
Thompson ordered Cathedral, and Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School, where Layton works as a teacher, to fire the men or risk forfeiting their “Catholic identity. The archdiocese also sought to push all Catholic schools in the archdiocese to enforce a morality clause that prohibits employees from engaging in any behavior in their personal lifestyle that runs counter to church teachings.
While Brebeuf chose to take the consequences and refused to fire Layton Payne-Elliott, thus agreeing to be stripped of their designation as a “Catholic” school officially recognized by the archdiocese, Cathedral complied with the order. Joshua Payne-Elliott subsequently sued, claiming the archdiocese illegally interfered with his contractual and employment relationship with Cathedral, leading directly to his firing.
The archdiocese had argued that the lawsuit against it should be dismissed, as religious institutions are protected by a “ministerial exception” — stemming from the right to free exercise of religion, as guaranteed by First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — that allows them to fire employees, such as teachers, who are considered ministers of the faith, who do not abide by Catholic Church teaching in their personal lives. It also employed this argument in two other lawsuits brought against it by employees who were involved in same-sex marriages.
In May, Marion County Superior Court Judge Lance Hamner dismissed Payne-Elliott’s lawsuit on the grounds that the ministerial exception allows the archdiocese to determine who it chooses to employ, regardless of any local, state or federal nondiscrimination laws. Payne-Elliott then appealed to the Indiana Court of Appeals, arguing that his contract had been with Cathedral, not the church.
On Tuesday, a three-judge panel ruled that the trial court did not have jurisdiction to hear the case, and that it was too early in the process to dismiss the case on summary judgement. The panel also found Hamner had erred in dismissing the lawsuit with prejudice, which prevented Payne-Elliott from refiling the case in that court, according to the Indianapolis Star.
The appeals court’s decision allows Payne-Elliott to pursue his case on the merits against the archdiocese for breach of contract.
While courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have historically given great leeway to religious institutions, allowing them to flout anti-discrimination laws under the ministerial exception, a federal judge in North Carolina ruled in September that a Roman Catholic school had unlawfully fired a gay substitute teacher after he announced his plans to marry his longtime male partner. The court ruled in that case that the ministerial exception did not prevent then school from being sued under federal law for sex-based discrimination.
Such a ruling gives hope to many LGBTQ teachers and coaches who have run afoul of Catholic teachings on same-sex marriage, but argue that the Church has selectively enforced morality clauses or contracts against LGBTQ individuals, as opposed to other employees living “sinful” lifestyles.
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