Trump Administration Files Court Brief in Support of Archdiocese that Fired Gay Church Worker

U.S. Attorney General William Barr

Three separate parties, including the Trump administration, have filed friend-of-the court briefs with Indiana’s highest court, arguing that a lawsuit against a local archdiocese which fired a gay Catholic high school teacher should be dismissed on religious liberty grounds.

According to the Indianapolis Star, the Trump administration through its Department of Justice under Attorney General William Barr, as well as Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill and a group of law professors from three different universities all filed amicus briefs with the Indiana Supreme Court. The briefs contend that First Amendment religious liberty protections under the Constitution shield the Archdiocese of Indianapolis from Joshua Payne-Elliot’s 2019 employment discrimination lawsuit.

Payne-Elliot, a gay former teacher at Cathedral High School, Indianapolis, was fired because of his marriage to another man, Layton Payne-Elliott, a teacher at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in the same city. Brebeuf refused to fire Layton, and as a result, the school lost official recognition as a Catholic school by the archdiocese, a decision that is on appeal at the Vatican. Cathedral High School, however, complied with the archdiocesan mandate and fired Joshua.

As reported by Crux, the Department of Justice’s brief underscored two central arguments: (1) religious employers have the autonomy to hire–and fire–workers to ensure the employer’s “beliefs and conduct are consistent” with their doctrinal tenets, and (2) the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from meddling with the autonomy of religious entities.

Moreover, the Justice Department emphasized the recent expansion of the “ministerial exception,” reinforced by the U.S. Supreme Court decisions in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berrum and St. James School v. Biel. The exemption excludes religious institutions from non-discrimination employment laws for personnel who are defined as ministers.

In these 2020 cases, the high court concluded that a religious worker can fulfill an “important religious function” as determined by the employer even if the employee does not hold a specific title or training required of a religious leader, thereby qualifying for the “ministerial exception.” (New Ways Ministry is sponsoring a webinar with law professor Leslie Griffin on November 1, 2020 about what these Supreme Court rulings and future actions by the court mean for LGBTQ church workers. For more information, click here.)

Notably, Barr is set to receive the Christifideles Laici Award, which aims to “to help highlight these good works and those who serve the Church so well,” from the right wing National Catholic Prayer Breakfast on September 23rd. Catholic social justice groups have pointed out that the contradiction in Barr receiving the award on the day between two federal executions. While Pope Francis has made clear that Catholic doctrine now fully opposes the death penalty, Barr is responsible for reinstating it on the federal level.

The amicus briefs submitted by Indiana Attorney General Hill argued similarly: “under the church-autonomy doctrine, the courts should not interfere with religious law.”

The law faculty’s amicus brief followed suit, and also reiterated that Payne-Elliot’s complaint seeks to interfere with the Archdiocese’s unilateral freedom and power to determine the guidelines that govern Catholic schools.

Counsel for the Indianapolis archdiocese is Becket, a conservative law firm with a record of attacking LGBTQ equality. Payne-Elliot’s attorney, Kathleen Delaney, highlighted that the Archdiocese of Indianapolis has submitted emergency filings in an effort to circumvent the standard court process by expediting the case directly to the Indiana Supreme Court. As reported by Crux:

“‘If it really were an emergency, it was an emergency a year ago,’ DeLaney said. ‘And calling it an emergency now after they lost key rulings rings hollow.’”

The legal reasoning of the U.S. Department of Justice, Indiana Attorney General Hill, and the group of law professors continues to exacerbate an already painful LGBTQ employment episode in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. By buttressing the Archdiocese’s calculated move to bypass the judicial process and appeal directly to the Indiana Supreme Court, instead of an appeals court, these groups, along with the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, contravene the fundamental tenets of Catholics Social Teaching: dignity of the human person, protection of workers’ rights, and charity to vulnerable populations within God’s Kingdom.

In the last decade, more than 100 church workers have gone public about losing their jobs in LGBTQ-related employment disputes. You can find a full listing of these incidents here, as well as New Ways Ministry’s resources on church employment and LGBT issues here. For Bondings 2.0’s full coverage of church employment issues, click the “Employment” category on the right-hand side of this page.

–Brian William Kaufman, New Ways Ministry, September 23, 2020

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