Justice Department supports archdiocese’s right to fire teacher in same-sex marriage

The U.S. Justice Department filed a statement in court Friday saying the Archdiocese of Indianapolis was within its rights when it fired a Cathedral High School teacher in a same-sex marriage.

The Justice Department’s so-called “statement of interest” said the First Amendment prevents courts from impairing the constitutional rights of religious institutions.

“If the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses stand for anything, it is that secular courts cannot entangle themselves in questions of religious law,” U.S. Attorney Josh Minkler said in a prepared statement.

The Justice Department decided to weigh in after former Cathedral High School teacher Joshua Payne-Elliott sued the archdiocese in July. The archdiocese had said it dismissed the teacher because his same-sex marriage was in conflict with the Catholic teaching on marriage.

The archdiocese had given Cathedral an ultimatum: Fire Payne-Elliott or lose its Catholic affiliation.

In his suit, Payne-Elliott, who is married to a teacher at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School, sought unspecified damages for lost earnings and emotional distress.

The school renewed his annual teaching contract on May 21. Then on June 23, Cathedral’s president told him he was being fired on order of the archdiocese. Payne-Elliott had taught there 13 years. Brebeuf Jesuit received a similar directive to fire Payne-Elliott’s husband and chose not to. It’s now appealing the archdiocese’s directive.

In its statement of interest, the Justice Department said Payne-Elliott’s lawsuit attempts to penalize the archdiocese for determining that schools within its diocese cannot employ teachers in public, same-sex marriages and simultaneously identify as Catholic. U.S. Supreme Court precedent “clearly holds” that the First Amendment protects the archdiocese’s right to this form of expressive association, and courts cannot interfere with that right, the Justice Department said.

“The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the right of religious institutions and people to decide what their beliefs are, to teach their faith, and to associate with others who share their faith,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband said in a prepared statement. “The First Amendment rightly protects the free exercise of religion.”

A statement of interest explains the United States’ interest in a pending case, but the Justice Department is not a plaintiff or defendant in Payne-Elliott’s lawsuit.

Payne-Elliott’s attorney, Kathleen DeLaney, could not immediately be reached for comment.

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