Analysis: Vatican decision on Indianapolis could impact pending lawsuit, and Catholic identity in Catholic schools

The outcome of a Vatican appeal involving same-sex civil marriage and the Catholic identity of an Indiana school could have effect on a pending religious liberty lawsuit, and on the way other Catholic schools approach the issue of Catholic identity among their faculty.

Layton Payne-Elliot is a math teacher at Brebeuf Jesuit High School in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. In 2017, the school became aware that Payne-Elliot had contracted a same-sex marriage with Joshua Payne-Elliot, a teacher at Cathedral High School, which is also in the archdiocese.

The archdiocese asked that both schools not renew the teachers' contracts, because, they said, teachers in Catholic schools are supposed to be witnesses of Catholic doctrine, and contracting a same-sex marriage constitutes a public act of counterwitness to that doctrine.

Brebeuf refused the archdiocesan instruction. In turn, the archdiocese revoked the school's recognition as Catholic. The school appealed that decision to the Congregation for Catholic Education.

Curial officials close to the case have warned for months that Indianapolis' Archbishop Charles Thompson is unlikely to find support for his deployment of the "nuclear option" in response to the school's decision on Layton.

Several Vatican officials have told CNA that after some gestures of consideration, Brebeuf's Catholic identity will likely remain intact, and the practical autonomy of institutes administered by religious orders will be bolstered by the Congregation's decision.

A decision against Thompson could impact an ongoing civil lawsuit over the same case.

Joshua Payne-Elliot, who taught at Cathedral High School, filed suit against the Archdiocese of Indianapolis in 2019, after he was fired from his position. His case is currently before the state Supreme Court; this month the court rejected a request from the archdiocese to dismiss the case.

Cathedral High School's handbook states that the "personal conduct" of all teachers should "convey and be supportive of the teachings of the Catholic Church."

The Department of Justice has filed an amicus brief on behalf of the archdiocese, saying that "religious employers are entitled to employ in key roles only persons whose beliefs and conduct are consistent with the employers' religious precepts," and the government cannot interfere "with the autonomy of religious organizations."

But according to The Indiana Lawyer, a judge in the litigation offered an unexpected settlement proposal last year.

Judge Stephan Heiman suggested that the parties reach a settlement that would depend on the Vatican's decision in Brebeuf Jesuit's canonical appeal against the archbishop. The judge suggested that if the archdiocese prevailed in Rome, the civil litigation would be dismissed, but if Brebeuf won in Rome, "the liability of the Archdiocese to Payne-Elliott would be established as a legal matter."

Payne-Elliot accepted the idea, but the archdiocese did not. It's worth noting that the judge's proposal seemed to consider that the Congregation for Catholic Education will rule on the issue only as a matter of principle, when, in fact, there are any number of technical canonical issues at play, all of which may be a factor in the canonical case.

Heiman has recused himself from the case, and a special judge has been appointed.

But Heiman's proposed settlement indicated that he saw a correlation between the Congregation's decision and the case before him. That idea may well be picked up by Judge Lance Hammer, who is now overseeing the case, or argued for by Payne-Elliot's attorneys, especially if the Congregation decides against Thompson without clarity on the reasons.

In short, the canonical specifics of the Vatican's decision may well prove an operative factor in the ongoing civil litigation.

Of course, a decision against the archdiocese could also have a chilling effect on other Catholic institutions which require that teachers or employees live according to Catholic doctrine. It is unlikely bishops will be willing to press institutions in their diocese on such requirements, especially institutions administered by religious institutes, if they expect Rome won't support their decisions on the matter.

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Across the U.S., Catholic bishops in recent years have strengthened their policies on the Catholic identity of employees, in light of a number of religious liberty decisions in U.S. courts. But to understand how those policies might actually be applied in the years to come, many will now be looking to Rome, and to Indianapolis.

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