Justices deny archdiocese’s bid to dismiss fired Cathedral teacher’s case

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A four-member Indiana Supreme Court denied a petition Thursday filed by the Archdiocese of Indianapolis to stop the lawsuit brought by a social studies teacher who was fired from Cathedral High School for being in a same-sex marriage.

The archdiocese had turned to the Supreme Court with a petition for writ of mandamus and prohibition in August after the Marion Superior Court denied its motion to dismiss the former teacher’s lawsuit in Joshua Payne-Elliott v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Inc., 49D01-1907-PL-027728. Cathedral High School did not renew Payne-Elliott’s contract after the archdiocese threatened to pull the school’s recognition as Catholic.

In its petition, the archdiocese reiterated its arguments from the trial court. The religious organization told the Indiana justices the state is barred by the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty from interfering with church governance.

However, in a two-page order, a split Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling.

The court found the archdiocese had not met its burden of showing why the “extraordinary remedy” of the writ of mandamus and prohibition should be issued.

According to the order, four justices considered the archdiocese’s request. Two voted to deny the writ without a hearing while two others voted to hold a hearing. Because a majority of the court was not persuaded to hold a hearing, the petition was denied.

The order was signed by Acting Chief Justice Steven David. Chief Justice Loretta Rush recused herself from the decision but no explanation was given as to why she did not participate. The order did not indicate which justices voted to hear the case and which voted to deny.

The order from the Supreme Court also appointed Johnson Superior Judge Lance Hamner to preside as special judge over Payne-Elliott’s lawsuit. Hamner was elected to the Johnson County bench in 2008 after serving more than four terms as county prosecutor.

Included in its petition, the archdiocese had requested the Supreme Court require Bartholomew Circuit Senior Judge Stephen Heimann to step down from the case. The Supreme Court did not act on that matter because the jurist had already recused himself in September.

Heimann had been appointed to serve as special judge in August 2019 but the relationship with the archdiocese became increasingly rocky.

The archdiocese chaffed under the judge’s order to respond to Payne-Elliott’s request for discovery and alleged Heimann was biased against the church’s position. According to the archdiocese’s brief in support of its writ of mandamus, the judge advised the religious organization to remember the “Catholic Church was ‘wrong on slavery’ as well as ‘Galileo’ and the law on religious liberty is ‘in flux’….”

Moreover, the archdiocese asserted the trial judge was trying to assert state authority over matters of ecclesiastical governance.

“Plaintiff’s lawsuit on its face trenches on church autonomy. Plaintiff seeks to invoke state tort law to punish the Archdiocese for issuing an ecclesiastical directive telling a Catholic school what religious guidelines it needed to follow to be Catholic. But whether and on what terms an Archbishop recognizes another organization as Catholic is a matter of ‘church discipline’ and ecclesiastical government,’ and ‘not the proper subject of civil court inquiry,’” the archdiocese argued in its brief, citing Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.)  679 (1871) and Serbian E. Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976).

Payne-Elliott described the archdiocese’s writ as “sour grapes” and the trial court properly denied the motion to dismiss. In particular, he argued the First Amendment does not immunize the archdiocese from civil tort law.

“Indiana courts have routinely exercise jurisdiction over the Archdiocese in civil torts cases, including cases involving sexual abuse by priests and student on student assaults in religious schools,” Payne-Elliott asserted in his brief opposed to the petition for writ.

“…Whether the Catholic Church’s teachings on homosexuality and same-sex marriage are right or wrong need not be decided in this case. The Archdiocese wrongfully caused Cathedral to terminate Payne-Elliott. Its actions will be measured against neutral and generally applicable tort law.”

Payne-Elliott is represented by Kathleen DeLaney and Christopher Stake of DeLaney & DeLaney in Indianapolis.

John Mercer of Mercer Belanger in Indianapolis and attorneys from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty are representing the archdiocese.

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