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Archdiocese may direct Catholic school to fire gay teacher, Indiana Supreme Court rules

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The Indiana Supreme Court has ruled that the Archdiocese of Indianapolis had the right to direct a Catholic high school to terminate a teacher because he married another man, concluding that the Church has the right to govern its own affairs.

In a unanimous decision Wednesday, the state's highest court ruled in favor of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis and against Joshua Payne-Elliott, a former teacher at Cathedral High School.

Justice Geoffrey Slaughter authored the court opinion, arguing that the archdiocese was protected by the "church-autonomy defense," which allowed the institution to fire Payne-Elliott based on maintaining Church teaching on marriage.

"[T]he archdiocese's decision whether a school maintains its Catholic identity is an internal matter that concerns both church policy and administration," wrote Slaughter.

"The gist of Payne-Elliott's claims is communication between the archbishop and Cathedral, a Catholic school, over a matter involving church discipline and doctrine: whether and when the archdiocese would continue to recognize Cathedral as Catholic is at the heart of the communication."

Becket, a legal nonprofit specializing in religious liberty cases representing the archdiocese, contends that Catholic school teachers in the archdiocese sign an agreement to uphold the teachings of the Catholic Church.

"Courts can't decide what it means to be Catholic — only the Church can do that," said Becket Senior Counsel and Vice President Luke Goodrich in a statement.

"By keeping the judiciary out of religious identity, the Indiana Supreme Court just protected all religious institutions to be free from government interference in deciding their core religious values."

In June 2019, Payne-Elliot was let go from Cathedral High School after it was revealed that he married a male teacher who worked at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School of Indianapolis.

The firing reportedly came at the direction of the archdiocese, as Cathedral had intended initially to renew Payne-Elliot's contract for the 2019-2020 school year.

Although Payne-Elliot settled with Cathedral shortly after his firing, he filed legal action against the archdiocese, accusing it of wrongfully forcing the school to dismiss him.

In May 2021, Marion County Superior Court Judge Lance D. Hamner sided with the archdiocese, stating a "lack of subject matter jurisdiction" and "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted."

Last November, the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed the lower court decision and remanded the case for further legal proceedings.

Senior Counsel Greg Nevins of the LGBT advocacy group Lambda Legal, whose organization filed an amicus brief in favor of Payne-Elliott, celebrated the appeals court decision in a statement released last year.

"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," stated Nevins, as quoted by WRTV.

"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."

In his Wednesday statement, Goodrich maintains that the Indiana Supreme Court's decision  protects "our most fundamental rights."

"Religious schools will only be able to pass down the faith to the next generation if they can freely receive guidance from their churches on what their faith is," he wrote. "We are grateful the court recognized this healthy form of separation of church and state." 

The state high court's ruling comes about a month after the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis and Roncalli High School after they were sued for refusing to renew the contract of a guidance counselor in a same-sex marriage.

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