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A Win for Religious Freedom and Constitutional Rights: Courts Side with Church Over Firing of Gay Teacher

In a massive win for freedom and constitutional rights, courts in the state of Indianapolis sided with Catholic authorities over their decision to fire a long-time teacher because he was married to a man. 

Joshua Payne-Elliott was a world language and social studies teacher at Cathedral High School from 2006 to 2019. Payne-Elliott lost his job in June 2019 following a directive from the archdiocese stating that Catholic schools, based on their doctrine and beliefs, could not employ people who were in same-sex marriages.

Justice Geoffrey Slaughter, in his written opinion, said, “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.’ “This principle, known as the church-autonomy doctrine … applies in this case and requires its dismissal.

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Payne-Elliott married his husband, Layton Payne-Elliott, in 2017. Layton Payne-Elliott is also a teacher and works at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School. Cathedral, aware of the relationship, renewed Joshua Payne-Elliott’s contract through May 2019, which allegedly included the 2019-2020 school year.

The archdiocese had ordered both Cathedral and Brebeuf (also in Indianapolis) to fire both men “due to the teacher being a spouse within a civilly-recognized same-sex marriage.” The Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School refused to fire Layton Payne-Elliot, which resulted in Archbishop Charles C. Thompson issuing a decree stating that the school was no longer to be recognized as a Catholic institution. The Vatican temporarily suspended that decision in September 2019. Brebeuf has been reinstated as a Catholic Jesuit school and is awaiting a final decision.

Joshua Payne-Elliott accused the archdiocese of interfering with his contract and employment relationship with the school. The archdiocese, in turn, argued that the church-autonomy doctrine made it possible to fire Payne-Elliott based on his same-sex marriage status — and the Indiana Supreme Court agreed with the archdiocese. 

“While we are disappointed by today’s decision, we would like to make clear that the Archdiocese of Indianapolis ordered the school to breach my valid, legal employment contract – a contract that the school had renewed three times after the school was aware of the relationship,” Joshua Payne-Elliott said in a statement. “We fear for the well-being of LGBTQ students and faculty in Catholic schools,” he added. 

In a tweet sent out by Luke Goodrich, the attorney for the Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis, he stated that the decision was a “powerful dose of common sense” as well as a powerful assertion of the separation of church and state. Catholic schools exist to teach the faith to the next generation of Catholics, and that mission becomes hindered and complicated once Catholic schools are forced to keep teachers in their employ who do not share those same values or who reject the core aspects of the Catholic faith.   

Kathleen Delaney, one of the attorneys for Payne-Elliott, said they are exploring all other options and determining their next steps. The ruling gives Payne-Elliot ten days to amend his case before a Marion County Judge. 

“We lament this decision’s movement towards immunity from civil liability for religious institutions that discriminate against their employees,” DeLaney said. 

How has upholding the constitution by the Supreme Court become discrimination? All religious institutions should be free from government interference when deciding their doctrine and core values. This was a colossal win for religious freedom, and we hope to see more cases won like this one.