Judge dismisses former Cathedral teacher’s claim he was fired over same-sex marriage

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — A judge on Friday threw out a former Cathedral High School teacher’s lawsuit alleging the Archdiocese of Indianapolis fired him 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 ordered him to be fired last year 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.

Indiana Supreme Court justices in December voted 2-2, with Chief Justice Loretta Rush abstaining, thereby denying a request to hear the case and sending back to a special judge for Marion Superior Court in Indianapolis. Lance Hamner, the Johnson Superior Court 3 judge in Franklin, was appointed to rule on the teacher’s lawsuit against the archdiocese.

The former teacher’s lawyer, Kathleen DeLaney, did not immediately have a response Friday afternoon, according to a representative from her office.

The law firm representing the archdiocese issued a news release that called the decision “an important ruling” that ensures “students and families receive an authentic Catholic education.”

Joshua 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 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.

News release

“WASHINGTON – An Indiana trial court today issued an important ruling in favor of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, confirming its right to ensure students and families receive an authentic Catholic education. In Payne-Elliot v. Archdiocese of Indianapolis, a former Catholic high school teacher sued the Archdiocese after he was dismissed for entering a same-sex union in violation of his contract and centuries of Church teaching. The trial court initially ruled that the lawsuit could move forward, but the Indiana Supreme Court sent the case back down and authorized the trial court to reconsider. The court then threw out the entire case, vindicating the Archdiocese’s constitutional right to set religious standards for its schools.

“Every Catholic school teacher in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis signs an agreement to uphold the teachings of the Catholic Church in word and deed. In 2017, Joshua Payne-Elliott, who taught at Cathedral Catholic High School in Indianapolis, entered a same-sex union in violation of both his employment agreement and centuries of Catholic teaching. After an extensive period of discernment and dialogue, the Archdiocese of Indianapolis informed Cathedral High School that if it wanted to remain affiliated with the Catholic Church, it needed to require its teachers to uphold Church teaching. After Cathedral separated from Mr. Payne-Elliott and provided him with a settlement, he sued the Archdiocese.

“‘If the First Amendment means anything, it means the government can’t punish the Catholic Church for asking Catholic educators to support Catholic teaching,’ said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, which is representing the Archdiocese. ‘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 Supreme Court has long recognized that the Constitution protects the personnel decisions of churches and religious schools. The Court’s most recent decision came earlier this year in Becket’s landmark cases, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James Catholic School v. Biel, in which the Supreme Court affirmed the right of religious organizations to “autonomy” in matters of faith, doctrine, and internal governance. Prior to that, the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the same right in EEOC v. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, another Becket case. Today, the Indiana court applied that principle and affirmed that the government has no business interfering in religious standards at religious schools.

“In September 2020, both the United States Department of Justice and the State of Indiana filed briefs in the case, arguing that ‘settled law on the church-autonomy doctrine makes clear that the First Amendment prohibits the [lawsuit].’ It is not yet clear if the plaintiff intends to appeal.”

Becket law firm