Fired Cathedral teacher appeals dismissal of his lawsuit against archdiocese

Joshua Payne-Elliott, the Cathedral High School teacher who was fired for being married to a man, is asking the Indiana Court of Appeals to overturn the Marion Superior Court’s dismissal of his lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

“We must continue to courageously show our families, friends and students how to stand up to bullies,” Payne-Elliott said in a statement. “The loving values of this community stand boldly above the divisive actions taken by the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and we look forward to a proper review of this case.”

The notice of appeal in Joshua Payne-Elliott v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Inc., 49D01-1907-PL-027728, was filed Thursday.

Payne-Elliott, a foreign language and social studies teacher, sued the archdiocese after his contract with Cathedral was terminated in June 2019. Payne-Elliott alleges in court filings that the church leadership had directed the high school to terminate his employment.

In its response to the lawsuit, the archdiocese maintained the religious liberty guarantees of the First Amendment prohibited the state from interfering with church governance. The argument went to the Indiana Supreme Court where a split judiciary allowed the Payne-Elliott’s lawsuit to proceed.

When the lawsuit returned to the trial court, Johnson Superior Judge Lance Hamner had replaced Bartholomew Circuit Senior Judge Stephen Heimann as presiding judge. Hamner dismissed the lawsuit in a one-page order, stating the plaintiff’s claims failed under Indiana Rules of Trial Procedure for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim.

Payne-Elliott’s attorney, Kathleen DeLaney of DeLaney & DeLaney LLC, pointed out the one-page dismissal was unusual because it provided no reasoning, no rationale and no basis for the decision.

“There are incredibly important constitutional and civil rights issues raised by this case,” DeLaney said in a statement. “We look forward to presenting our case to the Indiana Court of Appeals.”

Luke Goodrich, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said he was confident the Court of Appeals would uphold the dismissal.

“The Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed the freedom of religious schools to choose educators who fully support their religious mission,” Goodrich said in a statement, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, 19-267, and EEOC v. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, 10-553.

“If the First Amendment means anything, it means the government can’t punish the Catholic Church for asking Catholic educators to support Catholic teaching – and we look forward to another ruling affirming this basic principle.”

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