Judge Questions Authority of Indianapolis Archdiocese to Fire Gay Employee

Special Judge Stephen Heimann

An Indiana judge has allowed a fired gay teacher’s lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Indianapolis to proceed by calling into question the Archdiocese’s authority over employment decisions in its Catholic schools.

Special Judge Stephen Heimann of the Marion, Indiana Superior Court denied a motion by the Archdiocese of Indianapolis to dismiss the lawsuit filed by Joshua Payne-Elliot, who was fired by Cathedral High School, Indianapolis, because of his same-gender marriage. The judge’s order questioned whether or not the archdiocese had the ultimate authority, based on ecclesiastical doctrine, to make employment decisions. In addition, Heimann’s order shows significant challenges to the church’s sweeping claims of “ministerial exception” that could chart a course for future LGBTQ discrimination cases against the Catholic Church to proceed in a legally defensible way.

Payne-Elliot was fired in July of last year, after 13 years of successful teaching, for being married to his same-gender partner, a teacher at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School, Indianapolis, which refused the archdiocesan directive to fire him, resulting in the removal a “Catholic” designation for the Jesuit school. Payne-Elliot settled with Cathedral High School, who said they were forced by the archdiocese to terminate Payne-Elliot. The archdiocese did not terminate Payne-Elliot, but rather informed Cathedral High School that its Catholic designation would be rescinded if they did not fire the gay teacher. Judge Heimann’s order questioned whether the archdiocese has any authority to terminate its schools’ teachers, or if they could only ask schools to terminate gay teachers.

The judge based his decision to allow the lawsuit to proceed on the requirement in the legal doctrine of “church autonomy” that the civil court not interfere in decisions made by the “highest ecclesiastical authority” within a church. In the case of Payne-Elliot, the court recognized that there are three different church authorities involved in this particular employment decision. Cathedral High School, who had hired, renewed, and then fired Payne-Elliot was the most local authority. The Archdiocese was an intermediary authority who instructed Cathedral High School to fire Payne-Elliot. Finally, as the Archdiocese acknowledged in the case of Brebeuf Jesuit  that the Vatican was the ultimate authority to whom decisions made by the archdiocese could be appealed.

Since Cathedral was not given the opportunity to appeal, Judge Heimann questioned who had the ultimate authority on this issue. If it was in fact the Vatican, the “highest ecclesiastical authority” of the Catholic Church, then the decision of the archdiocese would not be protected from civil authority by the First Amendment, and the court could rule on whether or not the archdiocese discriminated against Payne-Elliot in deciding to have him fired.

While the archdiocese argued that it had a First Amendment right to hire and fire “ministers” who uphold the Catholic Church’s teachings, Heimann’s order argued that the court had the responsibility to legally determine whether Payne-Elliot was in fact a “minister” of the Catholic Church. He wrote,

“If the highest authority within an ecclesiastical body terminates an individual within the ecclesiastical body, the Court must then determine if the individual is a “minister” within the ecclesiastical body, or if the ecclesiastical body is claiming that the person is a minister, in an attempt to keep the court from being involved.”

The judge’s order acknowledged that there were facts that bolstered Payne-Elliot’s claim that he was not considered a minister until the archdiocese pressured Cathedral High School into firing him. The order further challenged the use of the ministerial exception, acknowledging that there was also an economic incentive at play. If Cathedral High School lost its Catholic designation, it would also lose its tax-exempt status. The judge posited that if Payne-Elliot was terminated by Cathedral for “an economic benefit to Cathedral at the direction of the archdiocese, then that is a different matter than Catholic doctrine,” and the court had every right to intervene.

The archdiocese’s attorney, however, believes that when given the opportunity to explain the relationship between his client and Catholic schools in its jurisdiction, the court will change its opinion, adding,

“To accomplish their mission, Catholic schools ask their educators to uphold the Catholic faith by word and deed. If a school’s educators reject core aspects of the Catholic faith, it undermines the school’s ability to accomplish its mission.”

The case of Payne-Elliot and the four other school employees in the Indianapolis Archdiocese who have been fired or threatened with termination over LGBTQ issues reveals a pattern of targeting LGBTQ people for termination. The litmus test that Catholic educators should uphold the Catholic faith by word and deed is applied discriminatorily toward LGBTQ employees, while other staff are not subject to such a test. If that standard is not upheld universally, the church violates its own teaching that LGBTQ people should not face “unjust discrimination,” causing punitive psychological and economic harm.

The more resources the Archdiocese of Indianapolis spends on defending its right to threaten schools into discriminating against LGBTQ employees and those who stand up for them, the less credible it becomes in making any pronouncements on social justice, the dignity of the human person, the advancement of the common good, and the unconditional love of God—all of which are fundamentals of Catholicism. Instead, the Archdiocese of Indianapolis should reverse its course, repent for its sinful discrimination, reinstate the fired educators, and welcome the LGBTQ community with open hearts, as Jesus Christ would have.

Joshua Payne-Elliot and the other fired Indianapolis church workers are among the more than 100 church employees who have lost their jobs in LGBTQ-related disputes over the last decade. The following resources are available to learn more about such disputes and how Catholics can take action against the church employee firings:

  • For Bondings 2.0’s full coverage of the Indianapolis employment disputes involving Roncalli High, Cathedral High School, and Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School, click here.
  • For Bondings 2.0’s full coverage of church employment issues, click the “Employment” category on the right-hand side of this page.
  • For New Ways Ministry’s resources on non-discrimination, church workers, and LGBTQ issues here.

Kevin Molloy, New Ways Ministry, May 26, 2020

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