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Former teacher fired by Catholic school over same-sex marriage sues Archdiocese

Joshua Payne-Elliott. (Photo Provided)

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — A former Catholic school teacher fired over his same-sex marriage sued the Archdiocese of Indianapolis for illegal contract interference.

The 7-page complaint, filed Wednesday in Marion Superior Court, alleges the Archdiocese directed Cathedral High School to terminate the world language and social studies teacher.

Plaintiff Joshua Payne-Elliott seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, according to the lawsuit.

He reached a confidential settlement with Cathedral, attorneys confirmed.

“For 13 years, Payne-Elliott was a cherished educator of countless students at Cathedral High School,” Kathleen DeLaney, the plaintiff’s attorney, said Wednesday in a press release. “We intend to hold the Archdiocese accountable for violations of state and federal law.”

“We hope that this case will put a stop to the targeting of LGBTQ employees and their families,” Payne-Elliott said in a statement.

DeLaney and Payne-Elliott declined interview requests from News 8.

The former teacher had a “valid and existing” employment contract with Cathedral that extended through the 2018-2019 school year, and one for the 2019-2020 school year, according to the complaint.

A school administrator acknowledged Payne-Elliott was a “very good teacher” during his termination meeting, the lawsuit claims, and cited no performance-based reasons for firing him.

“Based on his 13 years of successful employment, positive performance evaluations and excellent professional reputation, Payne-Elliott had every reason to expect to continue to teach at Cathedral for the foreseeable future,” the complaint states. “[The] Archdiocese intentionally interfered with Payne-Elliott’s contract with Cathedral by demanding that Cathedral terminate Payne-Elliott’s contract and by threatening to impose negative consequences on Cathedral if it refused to terminate Payne-Elliott’s contract.”

The school posted an open letter on its website following the controversial termination.

“Archbishop Thompson made it clear that Cathedral’s continued employment of a teacher in a public, same-sex marriage would result in our forfeiting our Catholic identity due to our employment of an individual living in contradiction to Catholic teaching on marriage,” the letter states. “In order to remain a Catholic Holy Cross School, Cathedral must follow the direct guidance given to us by Archbishop Thompson and separate from the teacher.” 

Robert Bridges, the president of Cathedral High School, informed Payne-Elliott the termination felt like it was carried out “with a gun to our head,” the lawsuit alleges.

Bridges did not immediately respond to requests for comment from News 8.

The plaintiff married Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School teacher Layton Payne-Elliott in 2017, according to DeLaney’s press release.

Brebeuf’s refusal to terminate Layton led the Archdiocese to strip the school of its Catholic identity, she confirmed in an email to News 8.

David Page, an Indiana lawyer not involved in Payne-Elliott’s case against the Archdiocese, described the illegal interference suit as a “brilliant legal move.”

“They’re not suing for wrongful termination,” he explained. “They’re going after the Archdiocese for injecting themselves into the business relationship between Cathedral and its teacher. The Archdiocese has been positioning themselves for a year now by saying, ‘We’re a religious institution. We have the right to pick our ministers. Our teachers are ministers of the faith and we’re allowed to discriminate against them because of the ministerial exception.’ Kathleen [DeLaney] totally takes that defense away from them… [by alleging] the Archdiocese forced Cathedral to terminate a contract that they didn’t want to.”

Page represents Shelly Fitzgerald, a former guidance counselor fired by Roncalli High School over her same-sex marriage.

Payne-Elliott’s case could have “tremendous impact” on the Indianapolis Catholic school community, Page said.

A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis emailed a statement to News 8 in response to requests for comment:
“In the Archdiocese of Indianapolis’ Catholic schools, all teachers, school leaders and guidance counselors are ministers and witnesses of the faith, who are expected to uphold the teachings of the Church in their daily lives, both in and out of school. Religious liberty, which is a hallmark of the U.S. Constitution and has been tested in the U.S. Supreme Court, acknowledges that religious organizations may define what conduct is not acceptable and contrary to the teachings of its religion, for its school leaders, guidance counselors, teachers and other ministers of the faith.”