DOJ Backs Indianapolis Archdiocese in Gay Teacher Row

News: US News
by David Nussman  •  •  October 1, 2019   

U.S. Department of Justice files statement of interest in lawsuit over firing of gay 'married' teacher

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INDIANAPOLIS ( - The U.S. Department of Justice is supporting the Indianapolis archdiocese's right to dismiss a teacher in a homosexual union.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a statement of interest on Sept. 27, siding with the archdiocese of Indianapolis in a lawsuit it faces from a former teacher at a Catholic high school.

The lawsuit in question comes from Joshua Payne-Elliott, formerly a teacher of social studies and world languages at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis. School administrators terminated Payne-Elliot's contract this June due to pressure from the archdiocese because he was in a same-sex "marriage."

After reaching a settlement with the school, Payne-Elliot filed suit against the archdiocese of Indianapolis on July 10, claiming the archdiocese interfered with his employment contract. He filed a complaint in county court and also filed charges with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

A statement of interest is not a ruling. Rather, it speaks to the federal government's interest in a case.

A press release from the DOJ characterized the statement of interest as "explaining that the First Amendment protects the right of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis to interpret and apply Catholic doctrine."


The DOJ's press statement quotes Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, as saying, "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."

Likewise, U.S. Attorney Josh Minkler of the Southern District of Indiana commented, "If the First Amendment's Religion Clauses stand for anything, it is that secular courts cannot entangle themselves in questions of religious law."

If the First Amendment's Religion Clauses stand for anything, it is that secular courts cannot entangle themselves in questions of religious law.

In contrast, Payne-Elliot's attorney, Kathleen DeLaney, claimed that the DOJ's Statement of Interest was "highly unusual."

"What I take away from this," DeLaney opined, "is that the Trump administration is politicizing a legal dispute about an Indiana business tort."

Payne-Elliot's gay partner, Layton Payne-Elliott, is a teacher at Jesuit-run Brebeuf High School. Back in June, Indianapolis' Abp. Charles Thompson revoked Brebeuf's right to call itself Catholic for refusing to dismiss Layton.

As a consequence of the decree, Abp. Thompson forbade Brebeuf from having all-school Masses — but allowed a small morning Mass typically offered in the school's chapel before the school day.

The Jesuits appealed to the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education (CCE) about Abp. Thompson's decision to revoke the school's Catholic identity. In late September, the CCE put the archbishop's decree on pause, pending a final decision.

The temporary lifting of the decree is a common practice in canonical cases and does not speak to which way the CCE is leaning on the case.

The Indianapolis archdiocese has caught flak repeatedly in recent times for schools dismissing faculty members in same-sex "marriages."

At Roncalli High School, administrators put a guidance counselor on leave in August 2018 because she was legally "married" to another woman. Then, in March 2019, the same school dismissed a different guidance counselor who was also in a same-sex union. The two women have taken legal actions against the archdiocese and the high school.

Archbishop Thompson and Superintendent Gina Fleming spoke up about the controversies over gay teachers' dismissals at a press gathering on June 27. The archbishop emphasized that teachers at Catholic schools are expected to give "ministerial witness" to the Catholic faith, which includes living in accord with Catholic moral teaching.

In like manner, Fleming argued, "So if we work for the Church, we certainly are expected to convey and be supportive of Church teachings — not only in our classrooms and our schools, but in the way we live our lives."

Regarding teachers at Catholic schools, the Code of Canon Law states that "teachers are to be outstanding in correct doctrine and integrity of life" (canon 803, section 2).

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