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Indiana Supreme Court Upholds Firing Of Catholic School Teacher Over Same-Sex Marriage

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OPINION: This article may contain commentary which reflects the author's opinion.


The Indiana Supreme Court this week issued a ruling that is not likely to go over well on the left.

On Wednesday, the justices ruled 4-0 in favor of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis in upholding the firing of former high school teacher Joshua Payne-Elliott in 2019 due to his same-sex marriage.

The justices agreed with the archdiocese that the Catholic Church is protected in its action under the First Amendment’s freedom of religion guarantee.

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“Religious freedom protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution encompasses the right of religious institutions ‘to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine,’” Justice Geoffrey Slaughter wrote, as the justices reaffirmed the Church’s right to operate under its sincerely held religious beliefs free from state interference.

“Courts can’t decide what it means to be Catholic—only the Church can do that,” noted Luke Goodrich, VP & senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the firm representing the archdiocese.

“By keeping the judiciary out of religious identity, the Indiana Supreme Court just protected all religious institutions to be free from government interference in deciding their core religious values,” he added.

Citing a previous case, Slaughter added: “Religious freedom protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution encompasses the right of religious institutions ‘to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.'”

The Daily Wire notes further:

The history of the case reaches back to 2017 when Payne-Elliott married Layton Payne-Elliott, a math teacher at another school. In 2019, Payne-Elliott was terminated from his job as a teacher at Catholic Cathedral High School in Indianapolis over entering into a same-sex marriage in violation of church teachings.

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Payne-Elliott sued the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

His spouse worked as a teacher at another area school, Brebeuf Jesuit, that declined to fire him over the same issue. On June 21, 2020, the Archbishop determined that Brebeuf Jesuit could no longer use the Catholic name and would not be recognized as a Catholic institution.

“Brebeuf Jesuit was founded in 1962 as an independent Catholic Jesuit school,” said the letter to the Brebeuf Community, according to WRTV. “While we’ve enjoyed a collaborative partnership with the Archdiocese for nearly 57 years, we have always maintained control of our school’s operations and governance, including our personnel decisions.

“Specifically, Brebeuf Jesuit has respectfully declined the Archdiocese’s insistence and directive that we dismiss a highly capable and qualified teacher due to the teacher being a spouse within a civilly-recognized same-sex marriage,” the letter to parents, teachers, and staff continued.

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“To our knowledge, the Archdiocese of Indianapolis’ direct insertion into an employment matter of a school governed by a religious order is unprecedented; this is a unique action among the more than 80 Jesuit secondary/pre-secondary schools which operate in dioceses throughout North America, along with the countless Catholic schools operated by other religious orders such as the Christian Brothers, Dominicans, and Xaverian Brothers,” it added.

Brebeuf officials, in the letter, said they had no plans to change its Catholic identity regardless of the Archdiocese’s decision.

In response, the Archdiocese noted to WRTV: ” To effectively bear witness to Christ, whether they teach religion or not, all ministers in their professional and private lives must convey and be supportive of Catholic Church teaching.

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“In the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, every archdiocesan Catholic school and private Catholic school has been instructed to clearly state in its contracts and ministerial job descriptions that all ministers must convey and be supportive of all teachings of the Catholic Church,” the reply continued. “Regrettably, Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School has freely chosen not to enter into such agreements that protect the important ministry of communicating the fullness of Catholic teaching to students. Therefore, Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School will no longer be recognized as a Catholic institution by the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.”

Initially, a trial court in the state dismissed the lawsuit as requested by the Archdiocese. However, Payne-Elliot appealed to the Indiana Court of Appeals, where the lower court’s dismissal was reversed. The case was further appealed to the state Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously for the defendant.

“The court’s decision today was a commonsense ruling in favor of our most fundamental rights,” Goodrich added. “Religious schools will only be able to pass down the faith to the next generation if they can freely receive guidance from their churches on what their faith is. We are grateful the court recognized this healthy form of separation of church and state.”

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