Archdiocese claiming church autonomy in defense of teacher firing

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Declaring the courts have no jurisdiction over church doctrine, the Archdiocese of Indianapolis will be in Marion Superior Court next week, arguing for the dismissal of a lawsuit brought by a teacher who was fired from his position at Cathedral High School because he is in a same-sex marriage.

The Archdiocese is defending its decision to terminate Joshua Payne-Elliott’s employment, partly on the grounds that the judiciary cannot interfere in matters of ecclesiastical governance. Payne-Elliott, who taught world language and social studies at Cathedral from August 2006 to June 2019, was fired, according to the Archdiocese, because he did not follow the church’s teaching that defines marriage as between one man and one woman.

Payne-Elliott claims the Archdiocese unlawfully interfered with his employment and contract with Cathedral and filed a lawsuit in July 2019.

Oral arguments for the Archdiocese’s motion to dismiss in Joshua Payne-Elliott v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Inc., 49D01-1907-PL-27728, are scheduled to begin at 8:30 a.m. Dec. 12.  Marion Superior Special Judge Stephen Heimann will preside over the hearing.

The Archdiocese is also arguing Payne-Elliott’s claims should be dismissed because not only has he failed to make a claim for intentional interference, but because his claims are also barred by the First Amendment’s freedom of association and ministerial exception.

In asserting church autonomy, the Archdiocese maintains federal and Indiana courts have found the judiciary cannot review or question church doctrines, practices and rules. The Archdiocese cited, in particular, Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral of Russian Orthodox Church in N. Am., 344 U.S. 94, 116 (1952), which found that the First Amendment guarantees the right of churches “to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.”

Payne-Elliott’s claim, the Archdiocese argues, is asking the trial court to violate these state and federal court rulings. In his complaint, the Archdiocese contends, Payne-Elliott wants the Marion Superior Court to “decide that the Archbishop’s application of cannon law to Cathedral and the Plaintiff was ‘not justified’ and to punish the Archdiocese for establishing rules for what qualifies a school as Catholic.”

However, in his response in opposition to the motion to dismiss, Payne-Elliott asserts the church autonomy doctrine does not apply because his claims of intentional interference are based on legal elements of neutral and general applicability. Namely, he argues the Archdiocese discriminated against him because of his sexual orientation.

“However, if Church teachings on marriage are the basis for the action, one would expect the Archdiocese to enforce rules relating to those teachings equally to heterosexuals and homosexuals alike,” Payne-Elliott argues in his response. “Discovery is necessary with respect to other employees of the Archdiocese (or schools within the Archdiocese’s control) to determine whether the Archdiocese has instructed schools to terminate teachers alleged to violate Church teachings, such as divorce and remarriage without annulment, unmarried co-habitation, marriage without the sacrament, or other practices.”

Payne-Elliott is represented by Kathleen DeLaney of DeLaney & DeLaney LLC.

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis is represented by John Mercer of Mercer Belanger. Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, a nonprofit public interest legal and educational institution, will present the oral argument for the Archdiocese.

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Special Judge Stephen Heimann will preside over the hearing.

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