In dismissing teacher’s lawsuit, Indiana court hands a win to religious liberty

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A banner for Cathedral High School in Indianapolis is seen in this 2018 file photo. An Indiana court dismissed a lawsuit from a teacher at the school May 7, 2021, who said he was fired because of his same-sex marriage. (CNS photo/John Shaughnessy, The Criterion)

An Indiana Superior Court recently dismissed a complaint filed by a Catholic teacher fired from an archdiocesan high school following his same-sex marriage. The case is an important victory for the “church autonomy” doctrine affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 2020 opinion in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru. That doctrine forbids state intervention in religious institutions’ faith, internal governance and church discipline. This case, Payne-Elliott v. Archdiocese of Indianapolis, held that the doctrine protects diocesan decisions about which institutions are “Catholic.”

The social studies teacher involved, Joshua Payne-Elliott, entered a same-sex marriage after signing a contract with Cathedral High School promising, among other things, to “[c]onvey the Church’s message and carr[y] out its mission by modeling a Christ-centered life,” and to “integrat[e] … moral values in all curriculum areas.” He also agreed to respect and convey the Church’s teaching on marriage. Court filings indicated that the archdiocese had engaged in 22 months of “earnest discussion and extensive dialogue” with the school before deciding that it could no longer claim a Catholic identity while continuing to employ Payne-Elliott. The archdiocese possesses the authority to set the terms for Catholic schools under canon law and affiliation agreements with schools.

When the high school dismissed the teacher, its public statement stressed the demand of Archbishop Charles C. Thompson and the school’s desire not to lose its Catholic label. It did not articulate with any affection a Catholic understanding of love and marriage.

The fired teacher settled with the school but sued the archdiocese, claiming that it had interfered with his employment contract with the school. This is not the typical claim arising upon Catholic schools’ dismissal of employees openly dissenting from Church teachings on marriage. Ordinarily, an employee claims that he or she is the victim of “status discrimination” under a law providing employment protection for persons experiencing same-sex attraction. Schools then reply that they are exercising their religious freedom to employ personnel who support the mission. They also require employees to abide by their signed contracts.

Catholic institutions sometimes win and sometimes lose such “typical” cases. When they lose, it might be because a judge has decided that the job involved isn’t sufficiently linked to the institution’s religious mission. Sometimes, despite Catholic institutions’ insistence that they are responding to an employee’s conduct and not his or her inclinations, judges will insist (as against the notion that humans have free will) that there is no difference between inclinations and conduct.

In this nontypical case, however, the severed employee claimed that the archdiocese’s involvement with his contract was “unjustified” and designed primarily to injure him.

The court’s brief order dismissing the case fully endorsed two defenses employed by the Archdiocese of Indianapolis: first, that the teacher had not stated any facts on which a court could base a finding of a lack of archdiocesan justification or an intent to injure him; and second, and importantly for future religious freedom litigation, the court stated that it had no “jurisdiction” over the case. This is equivalent to a statement that the matter involves an internal religious dispute, completely committed to the discretion of the church under the church autonomy doctrine. It is not a legal question that a court of law can determine.

The church autonomy doctrine has often been applied to religious schools’ decisions about religion teachers or administrative leaders. Importantly, this case holds that it applies to diocesan decisions about the Catholic identity of institutions within their borders — and respecting teachers of subjects other than religion.

The case has generated both support for the archdiocese and backlash from observers who believe that Christian love requires accepting same-sex behavior. Future Church communications could better assist both Catholics and non-Catholics to understand why the Church must propose an understanding of love and marriage that mirrors God’s design and therefore involves a creative union that bridges differences, as well as complementarity that encompasses body, mind and soul.

Helen Alvaré is a professor of law at Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University.