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Catholic school can fire teacher for being in same-sex marriage, Indiana court rules

Catholic high school
A teacher speaks with students in the classroom and online as they return to in-person learning at St. Anthony Catholic High School during the COVID-19 pandemic on March 24, 2021, in Long Beach, California. |

An Indiana court has dismissed a lawsuit filed against a Roman Catholic Archdiocese by a former private school teacher who was fired for being in a same-sex marriage.

Marion Superior Court Judge Lance D. Hamner issued an order Friday in favor of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis’ motion to dismiss a lawsuit by former teacher Joshua Payne-Elliot.

According to the order, the court concluded that there was a “lack of subject matter jurisdiction” and “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.”

Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, a law firm that represented the archdiocese, released a statement Friday expressing support for the order.

“If the First Amendment means anything, it means the government can’t punish the Catholic Church for asking Catholic educators to support Catholic teaching,” Goodrich said.

“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.”

Kathleen DeLaney, the attorney representing Payne-Elliott, told the Indianapolis Star that she took issue with the order, especially its explanation for the complaint's dismissal.

“The decision itself offers no reason, no rationale, no basis,” DeLaney said. “We have no way to know how the judge got to the decision.”

In June 2019, Payne-Elliot was fired from Cathedral High School after it was revealed that he had married another teacher of the same sex who worked at a different high school.

The firing reportedly came at the specific direction of the archdiocese, as the school had originally intended to renew his contract for the 2019-2020 school year.

Although Payne-Elliot reached a settlement with Cathedral High School soon after his firing, he filed legal action against the archdiocese, accusing it of forcing the school to dismiss him.

“We hope that this case will put a stop to the targeting of LGBTQ employees and their families,” said Payne-Elliot in a statement at the time, as reported by the Indianapolis Star.

A trial court had originally supported having the case go forward, however, the Indiana state Supreme Court intervened and told the lower court to reconsider the complaint.

In July 2020, the United States Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that two Catholic schools could classify their teachers as ministers and not be held to the standards of anti-discrimination laws.

Justice Samuel Alito delivered the opinion of the court, known as Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, which regarded two lawsuits against two Catholic schools in California.

“The religious education and formation of students is the very reason for the existence of most private religious schools, and therefore the selection and supervision of the teachers upon whom the schools rely to do this work lie at the core of their mission,” Alito wrote.

“Judicial review of the way in which religious schools discharge those responsibilities would undermine the independence of religious institutions in a way that the First Amendment does not tolerate.”  

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