Editor’s note: This article has been updated with further background and developments in this case, including details from the amicus brief filed Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Claiming the judiciary cannot interfere with church matters, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Indiana Attorney General have entered the fight between the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis and a teacher who was dismissed from Cathedral High School in Indianapolis for being in a same-sex marriage.
Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill’s office and the DOJ, through Southern District of Indiana Assistant U.S. Attorney Josh Minkler, have filed amicus curiae briefs with the Indiana Supreme Court in State of Indiana ex rel. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Inc. v. Marion Superior court and the Hon. Stephen R. Heimann, as Special Judge thereof, 20S-OR-520.
Plaintiff Joshua Payne-Elliott was fired from Cathedral after the archdiocese threatened to no longer recognize the high school as Catholic if the school did not follow church doctrine. Payne-Elliot sued the archdiocese for tortious interference with a contract.
Marion Superior Special Judge Stephen Heimann called for additional discovery to further understand Payne-Elliott’s responsibilities as a teacher at the Catholic high school. The archdiocese balked and, after its motions for reconsideration and interlocutory appeal were denied, filed a verified petition for writ of mandamus and writ of prohibition with the Indiana Supreme Court. On Aug. 21, the justices issued an emergency writ and stayed discovery in the trial court pending the high court’s ruling in the archdiocese’s original action.
The state’s top attorney argues the archdiocese is protected under the church autonomy doctrine and, therefore, has absolute immunity. Permitting the case to move forward, the attorney general states, will not only violate the rights of the archdiocese but also harm the judiciary.
“The United States has a long tradition of preventing judicial entanglement in religious disputes — entanglement that can only lead to interference with church autonomy,” the attorney general states in the brief. “Here, the trial court’s refusal to dismiss a direct challenge to the right of the Archdiocese to manage its religious school — and instead to permit in-depth discovery to determine who ‘really’ is in charge and what that entity ‘really’ thinks about marriage — violates the First Amendment by doing just that. Cases such as this questioning the internal religious governance and doctrine must be dismissed outright.”
In addition to the Indiana Attorney General, the U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday also filed an amicus brief with the Indiana Supreme Court, arguing the First Amendment gives the archdiocese the right to decide who should teach at its high schools.
The Justice Department asserts, in part, the doctrine of ministerial exception applies in this case. Under this doctrine, the Department argues, the judiciary is prohibited from reviewing Archdiocese’s directive to Cathedral to terminate Payne-Elliott’s employment.
To bolster its argument, the Department cites Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, 140 S. Ct. 2049 (2020), where the U.S. Supreme Court found the ministerial exception barred two employment discrimination lawsuits brought by two former teachers at Catholic elementary schools.
The Department contends that although Payne-Elliott did not have a ministerial job title and the Our Lady decision applied to teachers in the primary grades and not in high schools, Payne-Elliott was required to support the teachings and traditions of the Catholic Church. He, like other teachers, had the responsibility to facilitate and supervise school prayer services and Masses as well as lead the students in daily prayers.
Also, the Department dismisses the factual difference that the U.S. Supreme Court’s precedents on ministerial exception applied to employment discrimination lawsuits brought under federal statutes. Payne-Elliott is claiming a state tortious interference action.
“Ultimately, this case concerns the decision to discharge a religious-school employee and whether the courts and litigants may probe the justifications for that action,” the Justice Department asserts in its brief. “The concerns animating the ministerial exception are in fact heightened in this case compared to the ordinary employment-discrimination case because the Archdiocese requested Payne-Elliott’s dismissal expressly on religious grounds.”
Payne-Elliott filed a notice of supplemental authority in the trial court, calling attention an Aug. 31 decision from the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals that placed some limits the ministerial exception doctrine. In Demkovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, 19-2142, the appellate panel rejected the claim of ministerial exception against a Title VII lawsuit brought by a music director who claimed the parish and the Archdiocese of Chicago subjected him to a hostile work environment because he is gay and disabled.
“Although common law tort claims (such as Payne-Elliott’s) were not directly at issue in Demkovich, the Seventh Circuit noted that the Parish and Archdiocese ‘acknowledged that the First Amendment does not bar those same ministerial employees from bringing contract and tort claims against their employers and supervisors,’ and ‘that a religious employer can be held civilly and criminally liable for a supervisor’s criminal or tortious conduct towards a ministerial employee,’” Payne-Elliott argues in his notice.
Also, the brief faults Heimann for allowing discovery and questioning whether the Archdiocese was the “highest ecclesiastical authority” with the power to mandate how Cathedral should handle employment matters.
“Courts are extraordinarily powerful, and the people bestow that power with the understanding that courts will apply it within strict limits and not in service of enterprises having no relation to proper adjudication,” the attorney general asserts. “When the judiciary allows itself to become entangled in religious disputes, however, that is precisely what happens. Courts harm themselves when they go looking for churches to fix. The trial judge’s actions here improperly interjected judicial power into ecclesiastical matters, and (the Indiana Supreme Court) should dismiss the case before the judiciary suffers further loss of esteem.”
According to an order in the case issued last month, any brief opposing the archdiocese’s petition must be filed on or before September 14. Once briefing is completed, the Supreme Court will take the matter under advisement.