by Leo Thuman
Last week, the Department of Justice announced its support for the Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis in a controversial lawsuit brought against them by a former teacher at Indianapolis’ Cathedral High School.
Earlier this year, Archbishop Charles Thompson notified two Catholic high schools that they would no longer be recognized as Catholic institutions within the Archdiocese if they continued to employ teachers in a same-sex civil marriage. One school, Brebeuf Jesuit, defied the Archdiocese’s order.
However, Cathedral High School opted to obey Archbishop Thompson and dismissed Joshua Payne-Elliott from his position as a history and foreign languages instructor. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Payne-Elliott agreed to a settlement with his former employer. However, that did not end the matter, as he filed suit against the school only a day after the settlement.
In the suit, which alleges a breach of his teaching contract, the plaintiff rattles off anecdotal evidence that the school’s principal had told him that he was competent at his job, and that the decision had not been made lightly. Payne-Elliott’s lawyers told the press that the Archdiocese had “illegally interfered with his contractual and employment relationship with Cathedral High School, causing Cathedral to terminate him.” In addition, Payne-Elliott has reportedly filed charge charges of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
However, what isn’t focused on in the legal proceedings is that Payne-Elliott had been employed by Cathedral for thirteen years. During most of that time, same-sex marriage was a major subject of debate across the country. Catholic prelates nationwide made it very clear that the Church believes that marriage is a sacred and indissoluble bond between a man and a woman for the purpose of creation of life. Further, with states introducing positivist views of Obergefell v. Hodges and the gay rights movement into history curriculum, the Church was likely concerned that a teacher with a public bias may teach a similar interpretation, going against Catholic doctrine.
Indeed, the dismissal of Payne-Elliott wasn’t arbitrary: he surely knew the position his employer was obligated to uphold on marriage. Nevertheless, he proceeded to act against Catholic teaching in contracting a same-sex marriage in 2017. While it is always unfortunate when a qualified employee is fired, there are many reasons that it can be justified on the basis of performance or conduct. When a religious institution like the Catholic Church is concerned, these justifications include Church teaching on proper conduct, and for good reason. In the Department of Justice’s Statement of Interest, Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband concurs:
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…The First Amendment rightly protects the free exercise of religion.
And in addition to the Constitution, Cathedral High School is also likely protected by Indiana state law. This is because Vice President Mike Pence signed an Indiana version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act while governor, which sets a high bar for the state to reach if it wishes to infringe on religious liberty. With these protections in place, the Archdiocese of Indianapolis seems to be on solid ground.
Nevertheless, this case will likely be contentious; such issues are polarizing, and drive people to defend to very different interpretations. However, the Department of Justice’s statement of interest is a good sign that religious liberty concerns in this case will be taken very seriously. But as with any religious freedom case, Americans of faith ought to pay close attention to how this case develops in coming months.
Photo credit: wp paarz via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0