Hearing delayed in lawsuit over teacher's firing for same-sex marriage

Cathedral High School in Indianapolis courtesy Becket Cathedral High School in Indianapolis. Photo courtesy of Becket.

Indiana's Marion Superior Court has postponed a hearing scheduled for Tuesday in a religious liberty case over whether a Catholic school may dismiss a teacher for publicly violating Church teaching.

Becket, which is representing the the Archdiocese of Indianapolis in the case, has announced that a March 10 hearing in Payne-Elliott v. Archdiocese of Indianapolis "has been postponed for medical reasons."

It added that the hearing will be reset at a later date.

Joshua Payne-Elliott, a former teacher at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis, filed a lawsuit claiming that the archdiocese illegally interfered in his professional relationship with Cathedral High School, leading the school to terminate his contract in June 2019.

Joshua and Layton Payne-Elliott had contracted a same-sex civil marriage in 2017.

Joshua was dismissed from Cathedral High because contracting a same-sex marriage violates archdiocesan policies and Catholic teaching.

"Archbishop Thompson made it clear that Cathedral's continued employment of a teacher in a public, same-sex marriage would result in our forfeiting our Catholic identity due to our employment of an individual living in contradiction to Catholic teaching on marriage," Cathedral High School leaders said in a June 2019 letter.

"Therefore, in order to remain a Catholic Holy Cross School, Cathedral must follow the direct guidance given to us by Archbishop Thompson and separate from the teacher," said the letter, signed by Matt Cohoat, chairman of Cathedral High School's board of directors, and Rob Bridges, the school's president.

Layton is employed as a teacher at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School. The school's Catholic identity was revoked by the Archbishop of Indianapolis in 2019 after a disagreement about Layton's employment. The revocation is temporarily suspended while the Congregation for Catholic Education considers an appeal.

In 2017, Archbishop Charles Thompson of Indianapolis had requested that Cathedral High School and Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School not renew the Payne-Elliotts' contracts.

Joshua Payne-Elliott filed a lawsuit against the archdiocese in protest of his dismissal in August 2019, one day after having reached a settlement with Cathedral High School.

Jay Mercer, an attorney for the archdiocese, has said that "The Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized that churches have a constitutional right to determine rules for religious schools, and that religious schools have a constitutional right to hire leaders who support the schools' religious mission."

"Families rely on the Archdiocese to uphold the fullness of Catholic social teaching throughout its schools, and the Constitution fully protects the Church's efforts to do so," he added.

The Department of Justice has said that the school's decision was protected by the First Amendment.

"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," a Justice Department statement of interest said.

It added 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 June 2019, the archdiocese said of teachers that "it is their duty and privilege to ensure that students receive instruction in Catholic doctrine and practice. 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."

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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 2019 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.

Archbishop Thompson has stressed that Joshua Payne-Elliott was removed not because he is homosexual, but because he had contracted a same-sex marriage, in opposition to Church teaching on marriage.

All people should be treated with love and respect, and sexual orientation in itself is not sinful, the archbishop said.

However, he added, the Church is clear in teaching that the proper role of sexual activity is within a marriage between one man and one woman.

The problem in cases such as Brebeuf and Cathedral, he said, "is about public witness of Church teaching on the dignity of marriage as one man and one woman. That is our Church teaching."

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"In this particular case we're dealing with, those are ministers in our Church. Teachers, guidance counselors, other leaders, leaders of the schools and other leaders in the archdiocese are bound to live out these principles."

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