Archdiocese seeks Indiana Supreme Court ruling on case from Catholic teacher fired for same-sex marriage

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The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis has asked the Indiana Supreme Court to end the case brought by a gay teacher fired from Cathedral High School, asserting the judiciary could be irreparably harmed by an “intrusion into religious affairs.”

In its petition to transfer, which was filed Friday, the Archdiocese is continuing its fight to block the discrimination lawsuit brought by Joshua Payne-Elliott. The language and social studies teacher was fired after 13 years of teaching at Cathedral High School because he is married to a man.

The case was dismissed in a one-page ruling by Marion Superior Special Judge Lance Hamner in May 2021.

However, the Court of Appeals of Indiana found three reversible errors in the dismissal and remanded the case, Joshua Payne-Elliott v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Inc., 21A-CP-00936, back to the trial court. The appellate court issued an order in January, denying a petition for rehearing.

In seeking transfer, the Archdiocese argues the Court of Appeals’ ruling threatens church autonomy and runs counter to precedent.

“The decision permits plaintiffs to (haul) religious leaders into court to defend fundamentally religious determinations — here, an Archbishop’s ecclesiastical directive setting the terms of religious affiliation with the Catholic Church,” the Archdiocese’s brief states. “The decision also conflict with settled precedent from this Court, and federal and state courts across the country, threatening irreparable harm to religious entities and the judiciary alike.”

Also filed Friday was an amicus curiae brief in support of transfer from Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita.

Echoing the Archdiocese’s assertions that allowing the litigation to move forward would entangle the judiciary in church business, Rokita’s brief told the Indiana justices to “shut this case down for good.”

The Court of Appeals held the issues presented in the case were not ripe for resolution. Specifically, the appellate panel held that more discovery was needed to determine whether the ministerial exception or the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine applied.

Pushing back, the Archdiocese argued Brazauskas v. Fort Wayne-S. Bend Diocese, Inc., 796 N.E.2d 286 (Ind. 2003), presented a very similar situation in which the Indiana Supreme Court did find there was enough to rule upon. Like Brazauskas, Payne-Elliott is seeking to impose intentional-interference tort liability based on the archbishop’s ecclesiastical directive regarding Cathedral’s Catholic identity.

Moreover, the Archdiocese asserted the First Amendment blocks Payne-Elliott’s discovery into internal church communications.

According to the Archdiocese, Payne-Elliott wants access to all documents related to any employees alleged to be in violation of Catholic Church teachings, including extramarital sex and birth control as well as details of how these violations came to light. Also, he is seeking all ecclesiastical directives regarding any “conduct that does not conform to the doctrine and pastoral practice of the Catholic Church.”

The Archdiocese asserted that allowing such discovery would irreparably harm the church.

In addition, the attorney general cautioned the Supreme Court against wading into church governance matters. He pointed to the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty and asserted that any court even attempting to determine whether a matter is secular or religious violates the church autonomy doctrine.

“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’s brief states. “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.”

Both the Archdiocese and the attorney general argued the church has “absolute immunity” not only from liability but from litigation. They asserted that allowing the discovery causes harm to church autonomy by exposing internal church documents.

The attorney general’s brief concludes, “The cost of litigation, the loss of institutional dignity, and the exposure occasioned by discovery of communications and internal directives of the Archdiocese are all harms that a favorable final judgment — to say nothing of an appeal following a disfavorable one — cannot redress.”

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