In a one-page order, Marion Superior Special Judge Lance Hamner did what a previous special judge and the Indiana Supreme Court had not done – dismiss the wrongful termination lawsuit filed by a gay teacher against the archdiocese of Indianapolis.
The ruling in Joshua Payne-Elliott v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Inc., 49D01-1907-PL-27728, did not cite any precedent or provide any explanation for the court’s decision. Instead, court stated the plaintiff’s claims failed under the Indiana Rules of Trial Procedure Rule 12 (B)(1) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and Rule (B)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.
Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing the archdiocese, said the decision vindicates its constitutional right to set the religious standards for its schools
“If the First Amendment means anything, it means the government can’t punish the Catholic Church for asking Catholic educators to support Catholic teaching,” Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel of the Becket Fund, said in a statement. “This has always been a very simple case because the Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed the freedom of religious schools to choose teachers who support their religious faith.”
Payne-Elliott’s attorney, Kathleen DeLaney of DeLaney and DeLaney LLC, said an appeal is being considered.
“We are very disappointed in the new trial judge’s ruling, which lacks any explanation, reasoning, or rationale for reversing the prior trial judge’s well-reasoned, lengthy opinion on the same issues in the same case, where he denied the motion for judgment on the pleadings in all respects,” DeLaney said in an email. “The only thing that changed in the interval between the two rulings was the judicial officer assigned to the case.”
Payne-Elliott was a world language and social studies teacher for more than 10 years at Cathedral High School. However, in June 2019, the school followed the archdiocese’s directive to not renew Payne-Elliott’s teaching contract because he was in a same-sex marriage.
Cathedral posted a letter to its website, saying it terminated Payne-Elliott because the archdiocese had threatened to pull the school’s Catholic recognition. Without that recognition, the school would not have been able to celebrate the sacraments or retained its nonprofit status.
Payne-Elliott was able to reach a settlement with Cathedral but filed a lawsuit against the Archdiocese for illegally interfering with his employment.
Bartholomew Circuit Senior Judge Stephen Heimann was assigned to preside over the case. He recused himself in September 2020 and offered a detailed counter to the assertions that he was biased and prejudiced against the archdiocese.
The archdiocese had demanded Heimann recuse himself after he denied its motion to dismiss. Bristling under the trial court’s order that the archdiocese begin turning over “hundreds of pages of sensitive internal church documents,” the archdiocese turned to the Indiana Supreme Court, arguing under the First Amendment’s religious liberty clause, the state had no authority over the church matters.
In a December 2020 ruling, the Indiana justices issued a two-page order which upheld Heimann’s denial. Also in the same order, the justices appointed Hamner to serve as special judge in the case.
When the lawsuit returned to the trial court, the Indiana Attorney General’s office filed a brief in support of the archdiocese. In a statement Monday, Attorney General Todd Rokita declared the dismissal a win for religious liberty.
“As we argued in the brief we filed with the court, questions of religious doctrine should be left to churches,” Rokita said in a statement. “When courts unnecessarily entangle themselves in these matters, they threaten the autonomy of churches and the free exercise of religious liberty.”