As Indiana courts rule for Catholic church, one discrimination case still undecided

The Indiana Supreme Court bench. (IL file photo)

In dismissing the lawsuit brought by a gay teacher against the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, the Indiana Supreme Court became the second court to rule against an Indiana LGBTQ educator by finding the decisions of whom to hire and fire are internal church matters that cannot be governed by the state.

A unanimous Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in favor of the Archdiocese over Joshua Payne-Elliott, who had taught at Cathedral High School, holding the church-autonomy doctrine prohibited the state from interfering in “matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.”

Likewise in July, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals found the ministerial exception protected the Archdiocese from an employment discrimination lawsuit filed by former Roncalli High School guidance counsel Lynn Starkey.

Both Payne-Elliott and Starkey had their employment contracts terminated for being in same-sex marriages.

The lawsuit brought against the Archdiocese by Shelly Fitzgerald, also a Roncalli guidance counselor who was fired for being in a same-sex marriage, is continuing in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana. Currently, the court is considering the Archdiocese’s motion to dismiss on the grounds of the ministerial exception.

Payne-Elliott and Starkey are represented by Kathleen DeLaney of DeLaney & DeLaney LLC in Indianapolis. Fitzgerald is represented by Mark Sniderman of Findling Park Conyers Woody & Sniderman, David Page of Henn Haworth Cummings & Page, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented the Indianapolis Archdiocese in both cases, heralded the Indiana Supreme Court’s ruling as upholding the ability of religious institutions to choose the religious values they want to pass along to the next generation.

“Courts can’t decide what it mean to be Catholic — only the Church can do that,” Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at the Becket Fund, said in a news release. “By keeping the judiciary out of religious identity, the Indiana Supreme Court just protected all religious institutions to be free from government interference in deciding their core religious values.”

Payne-Elliott, who taught foreign language and social studies at Cathedral High School for 13 years, sued the Archdiocese after his teaching contract was terminated in 2019 because he was married to another man. The Marion Superior Court dismissed the lawsuit, but the Court of Appeals of Indiana reversed.

While affirming the ruling of the trial court, the Supreme Court did modify the decision to reflect that the dismissal was without prejudice.

Payne-Elliott’s legal team indicated the plaintiff may use that opportunity to continue the legal fight.

“We lament this decision’s movement toward immunity from civil liability for religious institutions that discriminate against their employees,” DeLaney said. “The Court did, however, expressly allow Mr. Payne-Elliott to file a new complaint and start the case anew. We are evaluating all options and will come to a thoughtful, well-researched decision in consultation with our client about next steps.”

Starkey, who lost her job of nearly 40 years for marrying another woman, has concluded her legal struggles against the Catholic Church. Following the ruling from the 7th Circuit, Starkey said she was going to focus on advocating that private schools that discriminate not receive taxpayer dollars.

Payne-Elliott also noted the public dollars being directed to private schools.

“We would like the citizens of Indiana to know that millions of taxpayer dollars are being redirected each year from public schools (where teachers have enforceable contract rights and rights to be free from discrimination) to private schools which target LGBTQ employees,” Payne-Elliott said in a statement. “We fear for the well-being of LGBTQ students and faculty in Catholic schools.”

In Fitzgerald’s lawsuit, the parties have filed supplement briefs regarding the 7th Circuit’s ruling in Starkey. The Indiana Southern District Court directed the parties to explain the effect of the circuit court’s decision on the present dispute.

Fitzgerald argued in her supplemental brief that she is not covered by the ministerial exception because her job duties at Roncalli did not include religious responsibilities like praying with students or leading liturgical studies.

“As ‘Co-Directors of Guidance,’ Starkey and Fitzgerald had different responsibilities. Fitzgerald was responsible for ‘coordinating standardized testing,’ and attending the College Board Fall Counselor Workshop, wholly secular activities that took up the bulk of her role as Co-Director,”
Fitzgerald asserted. “Nor was supervising other counselors a religious duty: Fitzgerald did not ‘help[] develop … religious components’ for evaluating counselors, and her evidence shows factual disputes about whether Roncalli truly considered religious criteria in CEPA or otherwise.”

The Archdiocese, which is represented by the Becket Fund here as well, maintained Starkey and Fitzgerald are “virtually identical.” Moreover, the church argued in its brief that Fitzgerald misunderstands the ministerial exception by arguing she cannot be a minister because she did not actually perform any religious duties.

“But the Seventh Circuit explained that ‘[w]hat an employee does involves what an employee is entrusted to do, not simply what acts an employee chooses to perform,’” the Archdiocese argued. “So an employee can’t ‘immunize themselves from ministerial exception by ‘fail[ing] to adequately perform’ assigned religious duties; the ‘duties’ and ‘responsibilities’ themselves control.”

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