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Indiana appeals court reinstates former Cathedral teacher’s lawsuit against archdiocese

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — The Indiana Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that a Marion Superior court erred in dismissing a former Cathedral High School teacher’s lawsuit over his firing because he is in a same-sex marriage.

Joshua Payne-Elliott worked as a teacher at the Catholic high school for 13 years before he was terminated in June 2019. He says the Archdiocese of Indianapolis ordered him to be fired because he’s in a same-sex marriage.

The church has argued the First Amendment’s freedom of religion prohibits the courts from reviewing decisions by the archdiocese.

Lance Hamner, a judge from Johnson Superior Court 3 in Franklin, was appointed as a special judge to rule on the teacher’s lawsuit against the archdiocese in a Marion Superior court in Indianapolis. Hamner on May 7 threw out Payne-Elliott’s case with prejudice and cited trial rules. The Indiana Court of Appeals on Tuesday called Hamner’s decision an error and remanded the case back to the Marion Superior court.

The Indiana Court of Appeals also noted the parties involved in the case have yet to undertake the “requisite ‘fact-sensitive and claim specific’ analysis that must precede analysis of whether the First Amendment bars Payne-Elliott’s claim against the Archdiocese.

“For example, do genuine issues of material fact exist regarding: (1) whether Payne-Elliott’s job duties as a teacher at an Archdiocese-affiliated school rendered him a ‘minister’; or (2) the applicability of the ecclesiastic abstention doctrine? At this juncture, discovery in this matter is ongoing, and we find that this matter is well shy of being ripe for summary disposition.”

Payne-Elliott married Layton Payne-Elliott in 2017. Layton Payne-Elliott teaches math at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School. When the archdiocese requested Layton’s termination from Brebeuf, the school initially tried to split from the archdiocese. On June 21, 2019, Archbishop Charles C. Thompson dropped Brebeuf from the archdiocese. The Vatican suspended Thompson’s decision in September 2019, returning Brebeuf as a Catholic Jesuit school.

Statements

“What a wonderful unanimous appellate court ruling. Joshua Payne-Elliott just wanted the chance to make his case in court. The Indiana Court of Appeals today ruled that he will get that opportunity. The court realized, as we had argued in our brief, that it was quite premature for the lower court to dismiss this lawsuit under the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution without discovery and the ability to develop the factual record to determine whether the ministerial exception applies to Payne-Elliott’s work as a teacher of world language and social studies to high school students.

“The Archdiocese had sought to wield the First Amendment as some form of absolute immunity from any lawsuit challenging its actions. The Free Exercise Clause is not so broad. At a minimum, Payne-Elliott should be given the opportunity to present his case. His 13 years teaching at Cathedral High deserves no less, and we are grateful that the court agrees.”

Greg Nevins, Lambda Legal senior counsel and director of the Employment Fairness Project

“The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the constitutional right of Catholic schools to hire teachers who fully support the schools’ Catholic mission. Today’s ruling doesn’t address this core issue, and we’re confident that when the courts finally do, they will respect this fundamental right. If the First Amendment means anything, it means the Catholic Church can ask Catholic school teachers to support Church teaching.”

Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket law firm

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