Court questions archdiocese’s authority to terminate gay teacher

Marion Superior Court has denied a motion filed by the Archdiocese of Indianapolis to dismiss a lawsuit brought by a gay former Cathedral High School teacher, finding the archdiocese may not be the “highest ecclesiastical authority.”

Joshua Payne-Elliott sued the archdiocese after he was fired because he is in a same-sex marriage. The archdiocese maintained that under the guarantees of religious liberty, it had the right to fire Payne-Elliott for not upholding the teachings of the Catholic faith, which views same-sex relationships as a sin.

However, in his ruling on the motion to dismiss, Special Judge Stephen Heimann questioned whether the archdiocese has direct control over Cathedral and Brebeuf high schools. He cited the doctrine of “church autonomy” which limits a court’s interference in church decisions that are made by the highest ecclesiastical authority.

“In a civil dispute involving a church as a party, the court has jurisdiction to resolve the case if it can be done without resolving an ecclesiastical controversy,” Heimann wrote in the order issued May 1. “The court can avoid the religious controversy by deferring to the highest authority within the ecclesiastical body.”

The judge pointed to Brebeuf, which received the same directive as Cathedral to dismiss Payne-Elliott’s spouse. Brebeuf refused and while the archdiocese decreed the school would no longer be recognized as a Catholic institution, it acknowledged its decree could be appealed to a higher authority within the Roman Catholic Church.

Consequently, if Cathedral had the same ability to appeal the directive to Rome, then the decision from the archdiocese would not be protected from civil authority because that protection is only extended to decisions made by the “highest ecclesiastical body,” Heimann ruled in Joshua Payne-Elliott v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Inc., 49D01-1907-PL-027728.

The judge noted his finding is not a fact because discovery is ongoing. However, he described the court’s determination that the archdiocese does not have direct authority over Cathedral as a “reasonable possibility” and that ultimately the issue would be settled after discover has been completed.

Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing the Archdiocese, expressed confidence the court will change its view.

“In Friday’s decision, the court asked for further clarification on the relationship between the Archdiocese and various Catholic schools,” Goodrich said in a statement. “Once those relationships become clear, we expect the court system to uphold the Archdiocese’s constitutional right to establish rules for Catholic schools – as other courts have already done. If the First Amendment means anything, it means the government can’t punish the Catholic Church for saying which organizations are deemed to be Catholic.”

Payne-Elliott’s attorney, Kathleen DeLaney of DeLaney & DeLaney, applauded the court’s decision.

“We are heartened by the Court’s ruling which correctly holds that the Catholic Church is not above the law,” DeLaney said in a statement. “This important ruling allows us to move forward with discovery on a variety of key issues.”

The archdiocese argued two grounds for dismissal in its motion filed in December 2019. Along with asserting that the court lack subject matter jurisdiction, the religious organization also contended Payne-Elliott failed to state a claim.

When considering the archdiocese’s argument that the teacher’s complaint is barred by the ministerial exception, the court again noted the issue is tangled with the question about the archdiocese’s authority. Namely, the court’s jurisdiction is limited when the “highest authority within an ecclesiastical body” designates someone as a “minister.”

“If the highest authority within an ecclesiastical body terminates an individual within the ecclesiastical body, the Court must then determine if the individual is a “minister” within the ecclesiastical body, or if the ecclesiastical body is claiming that the person is a minister, in an attempt to keep the court from being involved,” Heimann wrote.

He then pointed out details of the case that indicated Payne-Elliot was never considered a minister.

Cathedral entered into a teaching contract with Payne-Elliott for the 2019-2020 school year but then told the teacher the school could lose its recognition as a Catholic institution if it did not adopt and enforce the “morals clause language used in teacher contracts in Archdiocesan schools.”

Heimann asserted that from Cathedral’s action of renewing the teaching contract, it did not seem to consider Payne-Elliot was violating a “ministerial requirement.” Moreover, the school was aware of Payne-Elliott’s martial relationship since Cathedral and the archdiocese had been discussing the situation for 22 months.

“Therefore, a relevant question arises from the conduct of Cathedral’s administrator,” Heimann wrote. “Did Cathedral classify Payne-Elliott as a minister at their school and if so, did Cathedral believe that he violated this classification? Furthermore, the Archdiocese did not terminate Payne-Elliott. It directed Cathedral to terminate Payne-Elliott. Does that mean that the Archdiocese did not have the authority to terminate Payne-Elliott or to discipline him?

“These legitimate issues cannot be determined without discovery,” Heimann continued. “If the Archdiocese did not have the authority to terminate Payne-Elliott’s teaching contract with Cathedral, how does it now have the authority to determine that Payne-Elliott was a minister at Cathedral?”

In his statement following the court’s ruling, Goodrich emphasized the archdiocese was exercising its religious freedom.

“Catholic schools exist to communicate the Catholic faith to the next generation,” he said. “To accomplish their mission, Catholic schools ask their educators to uphold the Catholic faith by word and deed. If a school’s educators reject core aspects of the Catholic faith, it undermines the school’s ability to accomplish its mission. Because of that, the Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized that religious schools have a constitutional right to hire leaders who support the schools’ religious mission.”

The court paused as to whether the religious mission or the potential financial impact led to Cathedral’s decision to terminate Payne-Elliott.

According to Payne-Elliott’s complaint, the school said it had to terminate the teaching contract in order to retain its designation as a Catholic school and “purportedly its tax-exempt status.” In addition, Cathedral felt as if the archdiocese was holding a gun to the school’s head.

“This all raises a question as to whether Payne-Elliott’s termination by Cathedral was to maintain its tax-exempt status,” Heimann wrote. “If Payne-Elliott was terminated by Cathedral for an economic benefit to Cathedral at the direction of the Archdiocese, then that is a different matter than Catholic doctrine.”’


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