Indiana Court Tosses Lawsuit of Gay Teacher Fired by Catholic High School

May 11, 2021 Updated: May 11, 2021

An Indiana court has dismissed a lawsuit brought against the Archdiocese of Indianapolis by a Catholic high school teacher who was fired over his same-sex marriage.

The lawsuit was filed by Joshua Payne-Elliott, who had worked as a world language and social studies teacher at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis for 13 years. In 2019, the archdiocese threatened to strip the Catholic status of Cathedral and Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School, where Payne-Elliott’s same-sex partner worked, if the couple remained on their staff.

Cathedral promptly fired Payne-Elliott, but Brebeuf refused and, as a result, split with the archdiocese. Payne-Elliott sued after his dismissal, alleging the archdiocese interfered with his employment contract.

The trial court initially ruled that the lawsuit could proceed, but the Indiana Supreme Court sent it back for reconsideration. Lance Hamner, the new trial court judge assigned to the case, on May 7 issued a one-page order of dismissal, which did not include any explanation other than lack of jurisdiction for the claims.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a legal group representing the archdiocese, applauded the decision, saying in a press release that the ruling ensured students and families receive “an authentic Catholic education.”

“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. “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.”

Meanwhile, Payne-Elliott’s attorney, Kathleen DeLaney, complained about the court’s lack of explanation, saying that the decision itself “offers no reason, no rationale, no basis.”

“What happened here is the Archdiocese of Indianapolis instructed Cathedral High School to terminate the employment of highly-respected and long-serving teacher because of who he is and who he loves,” DeLaney told The Indianapolis Star. “Cathedral caved to that pressure and terminated him. That’s what the case is about.”

The case gained national attention, including that of Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill and the Department of Justice under the Trump administration. Both filed an amicus brief in favor of the archdiocese, urging the court to throw out the case to avoid judicial interference with religious freedom guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

“The suit should have been dismissed immediately under the First Amendment’s longstanding protections for church autonomy,” Hill said in his brief.

U.S. Attorney Josh Minkler for the Southern District of Indiana agreed with Hill, saying in in a 2019 press release that “there is no more fundamental constitutional principle on the proper relationship between church and state than that the government must leave religious decisions to religious organizations.”

In March, the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrinal office issued a formal response to a question about whether Catholic clergy have the authority to bless same-sex unions. The answer, which was published in seven languages for the 1.3 billion believers around the world, is that such relationships are not part of God’s plan and should not be blessed.