DOJ backs Archdiocese of Indianapolis over firing of teacher for gay marriage

shutterstock 506478736 Sign for the Department of Justice (DOJ) in Washington, D.C. | Mark Van Scyoc / Shutterstock

The Justice Department (DOJ) said on Friday that the Archdiocese of Indianapolis is protected by the First Amendment in its request that a Catholic school dismiss a teacher for publicly violating Church teaching after he entered a same-sex marriage.

"The United States has a substantial interest in religious liberty," the DOJ said in a statement regarding a lawsuit filed by a former teacher at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis who was dismissed this summer after he contracted a same-sex marriage.

The statement of interest, released Sept. 27, said that "religious employers are entitled to employ only persons whose beliefs and conduct are consistent with the employers' religious precepts, and, more broadly, that the United States Constitution bars the government from interfering with the autonomy of a religious organization."

In 2017, Archbishop Charles Thompson of Indianapolis requested that Cathedral High School and Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School not renew the contracts of two male teachers who had entered a same-sex marriage in 2017. 

Brebeuf Jesuit resisted the order and Thompson subsequently withdrew the school's ability to call itself "Catholic" and said that the archdiocese would no longer recognize the school as Catholic. That case is now being considered on appeal at the Congregation for Catholic Education in Rome.

Cathedral High School complied with the archbishop's request and terminated the contract of social studies teacher Joshua Payne-Elliott. 

Following his dismissal, Elliott sued the archdiocese in a county court for wrongfully interfering in his contract with Cathedral Catholic; the lawsuit ultimately prompted the DOJ's intervention on Friday.

The DOJ statement said that the archdiocese's decision to apply the teachings of the Church on sexual morality and marriage in Catholic schools is legally protected under the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause.

"This case presents an important question: whether a religious entity's interpretation and implementation of its own religious teachings can expose it to third-party intentional-tort liability. The First Amendment answers that question in the negative," the DOJ statement read.

In its decision to terminate Elliott's contract, Cathedral High School had cited the threat of losing its Catholic identity. The school said it would have lost the ability to provide access to some sacraments and its permission to reserve the Blessed Sacrament in its chapel. The school also said it would have lost its tax-exempt status if it was no longer recognized as Catholic, among other consequences.

The Justice Department issued a "statement of interest" in Payne-Elliott's lawsuit, supporting the right of the archbishop to determine the Catholic identity of schools. The statement added that courts cannot "second-guess" the decisions of religious institutions to exercise their religious mission and implement doctrine.

Archdiocesan policy states that every Catholic school, archdiocesan and private, must clearly state in its contracts and job descriptions that all teachers are ministers of the Gospel and must convey and be supportive of all teachings of the Catholic Church.

In a June 20 statement, the archdiocese explained that teachers at Catholic schools are considered ministers, as part of the schools' mission to forming students in the Catholic faith.

"To effectively bear witness to Christ, whether they teach religion or not, all ministers in their professional and private lives must convey and be supportive of Catholic Church teaching," the archdiocese said.

Citing previous religious freedom guidance from the Attorney General in October of 2017, that outlined principles of protection for religious freedom for all government agencies to follow, the DOJ statement reaffirmed the rights of religious organizations to employ persons based on conduct in accordance with their principles.

The statement of interest cites the Supreme Court's 2015 Obergefell decision that struck down state bans on same-sex marriage; the Court, DOJ said, while recognizing a right for same-sex couples to marry, also made sure to "emphasize that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned."

Despite any public opinion to the contrary, the Court must respect the archdiocese's "free exercise" of religion in this case under the First Amendment, DOJ said.

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"The archdiocese determined that, consistent with its interpretation of Church teachings, a school within its diocesan boundaries cannot identify as Catholic and simultaneously employ a teacher in a public, same-sex marriage," the DOJ stated.

"Many may lament the archdiocese's determination. But the First Amendment forbids this court from interfering with the archdiocese's right to expressive association, and from second-guessing the archdiocese's interpretation and application of Catholic law," the statement read.

The case has a wider significance, as a bundle of employment discrimination cases will be heard by the Supreme Court this fall. Several cases involve Title VII protections against employment discrimination under the Civil Rights Act, and whether protections against sex discrimination in the workplace also apply to sexual orientation and gender identity.

The Court will also consider the freedom of employers with a religious mission to make hiring and firing decisions based on employee conduct in accord with their mission.

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