The Indiana Supreme Court has ruled that the Archdiocese of Indianapolis can fire Catholic school teachers who enter same-sex marriages or don’t live by Church teachings in their personal lives.
In a unanimous ruling issued on Wednesday, the court found that Cathedral High School was within its rights when, at the direction of the archdiocese, it fired Joshua Payne-Elliott, who had taught social studies and world languages at the school from 2006 to 2019, after it was discovered he had married another man, contradicting the Catholic Church’s opposition to same-sex marriage.
In its ruling, the court found that religiously-affiliated institutions, including schools, are protected by the doctrine of church autonomy under the First Amendment.
“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 as well as those of faith and doctrine,'” Indiana Supreme Court Justice Geoffrey Slaughter wrote on behalf of the court.
Payne-Elliott was one of three LGBTQ school employees fired in recent years for being in a same-sex relationship. In 2018, at the behest of the archdiocese, Roncalli High School fired Shelly Fitzgerald, a guidance counselor, who was outed as a lesbian by an anonymous person who mailed a copy of Fitzgerald’s marriage certificate to the school and the archdiocese. A year later, Roncalli fired Fitzgerald’s co-worker, guidance counselor Lynn Starkey, for entering into a same-sex marriage.
In 2019, the archdiocese ordered Cathedral High to fire Payne-Elliott for entering a same-sex marriage, while also ordering Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School to fire his husband, Layton Payne-Elliott, who teaches math at the school.
Both schools were threatened that they could be stripped of their Catholic identity if they refused. Cathedral conceded, firing Joshua Payne-Elliott, while Brebeuf refused, prompting Archbishop Charles Thompson to tell the school it could no longer advertise itself as a “Catholic” institution. The Vatican later temporarily suspended the Archbishop’s decision.
Following his termination, Joshua Payne-Elliott sued the Archdiocese, claiming it had illegally interfered with his contractual and employment relationship with Cathedral by demanding he be fired.
The Archdiocese of Indianapolis argued, in response to the lawsuit, that Payne-Elliott had no right to sue because the First Amendment prohibits a secular court from interfering in internal church matters. It also argued that under a concept known as the “ministerial exception,” religious institutions are permitted to discriminate in hiring and set specific rules of conduct for employees — such as abiding by Church doctrine in their personal lives — on the grounds that all employees are inherently “ministers of the faith.”
An Indiana Superior Court judge dismissed the lawsuit, pointing to the ministerial exception. Payne-Elliott appealed the decision to the Indiana Court of Appeals, which ruled last year 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 that the superior court had erred in dismissing the lawsuit with prejudice, finding that Payne-Elliott should be allowed to file a new complaint against the archdiocese.
Following Wednesday’s decision from the Indiana Supreme Court, Luke Goodrich, a vice president and senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented the archdiocese, called the court’s decision a “commonsense ruling.”
“Courts can’t decide what it means to be Catholic — only the Church can do that. By keeping the judiciary out of religious identity, the Indiana Supreme Court just protected all religious institutions to be free from government interference in deciding their core religious values,” Goodrich said.
“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,” he added. “We are grateful the court recognized this healthy form of separation of church and state.”
Kathleen DeLaney, an attorney for Payne-Elliott, said that while her client was disappointed in the Indiana Supreme Court’s ruling, he will be weighing all of his legal options.
“We lament this decision’s movement towards immunity from civil liability for religious institutions that discriminate against their employees,” DeLaney said in a statement to the Indianapolis Star. “The Court did, however, expressly allow Mr. Payne-Elliott to file a new complaint and start the case anew.”
Payne-Elliott said in a statement that he stands by his claim that the school breached its contract with him by firing him, noting that he had previously informed administrators of his same-sex relationship, with no action being taken until the archdiocese demanded it.
“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,” he said.
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