Justices grapple with church autonomy in fight over firing of Cathedral teacher

During the June 28 oral arguments in the dispute between the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and the former Cathedral High School teacher who was fired for being in a same-sex marriage, the Indiana Supreme Court wrestled with a central question: When can civil government exercise authority over church matters?

The Archdiocese asserted the lawsuit filed by Joshua Payne-Elliott delves into internal church affairs and, if allowed to proceed, would impermissibly entangle the court in matters of the Catholic faith and practice. Payne-Elliott, the teacher, countered the case is not ripe for adjudication and discovery must be allowed to move forward to determine whether the Archdiocese’s “church autonomy” defense applies.

Justices Steven David, Mark Massa, Geoffrey Slaughter and Christopher Goff queried both sides about how far the judiciary could preside over the case before the courts violated the constitutional protections on religious freedom. They questioned the extent and the limits of a church autonomy defense, what kind of discovery would be permitted and how can the court avoid getting into questions of canon law and faith governance.

Chief Justice Loretta Rush issued an order May 16 stating she would not be participating in the case. She did not provide a reason for her recusal.

Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, a nonprofit focused on protecting religious freedom, represented the Archdiocese. Matthew Gutwein, partner at Delaney & DeLaney LLC, represented Payne-Elliott. Also, Peter Rusthoven, partner at Barnes & Thornburg LLP, represented Lambda Legal, which submitted an amicus brief in the case.

In their arguments before the Supreme Court, the attorneys presented starkly contrasting views of what the justices were being asked to do. Goodrich asserted the court had very limited ability to rule on church matters.

“By this lawsuit, the plaintiff seeks to enlist the power of the Indiana judiciary to penalize a religious act of internal church governance, specifically, an ecclesiastical directive from an archbishop to a Catholic school, telling the school what religious rules it needed to follow to remain Catholic,” Goodrich told the justices. “This is a core act of church governance and penalizing it would run afoul of multiple First Amendment doctrines including church autonomy, expressive association and the ministerial exception.”

Gutwein countered the church cannot act without regard to civil law.

“The notion that any religious organization, when confronted with a tort claim, a breach of contract claim, a regulatory claim, can merely say ‘church autonomy’ without any evidence, without any documentation, without presenting any affidavit and … the lawsuit would be over is a quite extraordinary proposition,” Gutwein argued. “It violates the general rule that religious organizations are fully subject to civil law even when their conduct is motivated by religious belief.”

Drawing a line

Payne-Elliott sued the Archdiocese for tortious interference with his employment contract after he was terminated from Cathedral High School. In 2017, he married his husband and, even when the school learned of his marriage, he still had his teaching contract renewed three times.

Cathedral renewed his contract for the 2019-2020 school year but then reversed its decision and terminated Payne-Elliott’s employment. The school said the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis had directed the contract to be voided because of Payne-Elliott’s sexual orientation and marital status.

In Joshua Payne-Elliott v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Payne-Elliott asserted the Archdiocese “intentionally interfered with his contractual relationship and intentionally interfered with his employment relationship.”

The Marion Superior Court initially denied the Archdiocese’s motions to dismiss, to reconsider and for judgment on the pleadings. However, with the appointment of a second special judge, the trial court dismissed the case with no explanation.

The Court of Appeals of Indiana then reversed and the Archdiocese petitioned for transfer to the Indiana Supreme Court. The justices decided to hold oral arguments before ruling on whether to accept transfer.

David questioned Goodrich about the limits of church autonomy.

“So where’s that line drawn and how do we guard against essentially applying a qualified immunity?” David asked. “‘Sorry, it’s a church, game over.’ Help me navigate that.”

Goodrich responded that the claims that do not involve internal church communications could be litigated. The Payne-Elliott complaint, on the other hand, steps on religious freedom because the issues raised include “a core aspect of church governance” and a “clear violation” of Catholic moral teaching.

“You would ask on a case-by-case basis, ‘Is this claim likely to entangle civil courts in religious questions?’” Goodrich replied. “And here, you don’t have to speculate about that. It’s already happened with the first special judge’s actions in this case and the way that the plaintiff is litigating it.”

Gutwein maintained the case is unclear as to whether the decision to fire Payne-Elliott was based on church teachings. He repeatedly noted an ecclesiastical directive has never been presented and is not part of the record.

“In our complaint, we allege that Cathedral was directed to fire him,” Gutwein said. “The defendant here denies that allegation … but then claims, based upon the directive that it denies ever having issued, it should be entitled to complete immunity.”

Discovery dispute

As the case has progressed, Payne-Elliott has argued more discovery is needed. He has sought to determine whether the Archdiocese has instructed schools to terminate teachers alleged to have violated church teachings on marriage, including divorce and unmarried cohabitation.

Massa, echoing David, asked how the court could examine whether the Archdiocese was justified in its actions without “getting completely tangled up in the question of canon law and faith governance?”

Gutwein pointed to the lack of discovery.

“We just don’t know because we haven’t had discovery,” he said. “But it is still the case that their conduct can be motivated by religious reasons and still not be justified.”

Goodrich pushed back, saying the Archdiocese has complied with discovery requests and turned over “hundreds of pages” and answered interrogatories. The only discovery the church has withheld is giving the names of every employee who has allegedly violated Catholic teachings.

Providing that information, Goodrich said, would be “grossly intrusive into the internal affairs of the church.”

Also, on rebuttal, Goodrich said the dispute has caught the attention of the Vatican.

“The Vatican in Rome is looking at the archbishop’s directive and asking if it was justified as a matter of canon law,” Goodrich told the justices. “You are here in Indiana looking at the same question, ‘Is the archbishop’s ecclesiastical directive to Cathedral justified?’ That should be deeply troubling. It shows that this is a lawsuit challenging a core aspect of church governance and on the face of the complaint that can’t proceed.”

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