May 10, 2021

Court Throws Out Gay Teachers Discrimination Lawsuit Against Indianapolis Archdiocese

 The Archdiocese of Indianapolis has maintained the Constitution allows religious organizations to determine rules for employees. - FILE: Doug Jaggers/WFYI News

 The Archdiocese of Indianapolis has maintained the Constitution allows religious organizations to determine rules for employees.

FILE: Doug Jaggers/WFYI News

INDIANAPOLIS -- A lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Indianapolis that accused it of forcing a school to fire a teacher because of his same-sex marriage was dismissed last week.

Joshua Payne-Elliott filed a lawsuit against the Archdiocese in 2019, after he was terminated from his longtime job as a teacher at Cathedral High School. He accused Indianapolis church leaders of ordering his termination because Payne-Elliott is in a same-sex marriage -- a relationship the Catholic Church does not support.

The case attracted widespread attention, including that of the U.S. Department of Justice under former President Donald Trump and Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita. Both filed an amicus brief on behalf of the archdiocese and urged the court to throw out the case, citing constitutional protection of religious liberty.

Others supporting Payne-Elliott filed amicus briefs arguing that the Archdiocese is not entitled to “Church autonomy” to make its own rules. It called the termination “unjust from a
religious standpoint and unlawful from a civil standpoint to discriminate against LGBTQ individuals.”

In December, the Indiana Supreme Court allowed the Marion County Superior Court to reconsider the case, blocking an earlier ruling from a trial court judge that the lawsuit could proceed. After that, the previous judge recused himself, and Judge Lance D. Hamner was assigned.

Hamner’s one-page order to dismiss the lawsuit on May 7 did not offer much explanation other than citing a lack of jurisdiction for the claims.

Payne-Elliott sued after he was terminated from Cathedral. His lawsuit alleged the Archdiocese interfered with his employment contract.

The church said it would remove Cathedral from the Archdiocese if Payne-Elliott remained on staff, according to the school. Payne-Elliott had been a world language and social studies teacher at the school for 13 years.

But the Archdiocese argued that the Constitution allows religious organizations to determine rules for employees.

Becket, a Washington, D.C.-based law firm representing the Archdiocese, said the government cannot punish the Archdiocese for telling a Catholic school what rules it needs to follow in order to remain a Catholic school.

“If the First Amendment means anything, it means the government can’t punish the Catholic Church for asking Catholic educators to support Catholic teaching,” Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, said in a statement last week. “This has always been a very simple case, because the Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed the freedom of religious schools to choose teachers who support their religious faith.”

The case is part of ongoing controversies at multiple Catholic high schools in the city that come in the wake of the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2014.

In 2019, Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School refused to fire teacher Layton Payne-Elliott, who is married to Joshua Payne-Elliott. The Archdiocese responded by no longer recognizing the school. Brebeuf leaders appealed to the Vatican.

In 2018, the Archdiocese asked Roncalli High School to place guidance counselor Shelly Fitzgerald on administrative leave after school officials found out about her marriage to a woman. Fitzgerald filed discrimination claims with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission related to the issue.

Contact WFYI education editor Eric Weddle at eweddle@wfyi.org or call (317) 614-0470. Follow on Twitter: @ericweddle.

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