Court Dismisses Fired Gay Church Worker’s Discrimination Lawsuit for Unclear Reasons

Joshua Payne-Elliott

An Indiana court has dismissed a fired church worker’s lawsuit against the archdiocese that pursued his termination over his same-gender marriage, though the reasons for the court’s dismissal are unclear. Meanwhile, the discrimination lawsuits of two fired church workers in the same archdiocese have been allowed to proceed.

The state trial court overturned its previous ruling in favor of Joshua Payne-Elliott, who filed suit against the Archdiocese of Indianapolis after he was fired by Cathedral High School in 2019. IndyStar reported:

“The trial court initially ruled that the lawsuit could move forward, but the Indiana Supreme Court sent the case back down and authorized the trial court to reconsider. The archdiocese sought to have the original judge removed from the case, accusing him of misconduct. The judge later recused himself, citing a number of personal and family health issues.

“The new trial court judge assigned to the case, Lance Hamner, dismissed the case Friday. The decision to dismiss cited two trial court rules, but did not include any other explanation for the decision.

“‘The decision itself offers no reason, no rationale, no basis,’ [Payne-Elliott’s lawyer Kathleen] DeLaney said. ‘We have no way to know how the judge got to the decision.’

“DeLaney said the lack of explanation was unusual ‘in a case of this magnitude.'”

By “magnitude,” DeLaney is referring to the larger issue of whether religious institutions are exempt from non-discrimination protections and other civil rights laws when it comes to employment decisions. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year the the ministerial exception was quite wide, and the Archdiocese has said the case should be dismissed on these religious liberty grounds (a claim once backed by the Trump administration in this case). But last year, the Supreme Court also expanded LGBTQ employment non-discrimination protections , too, in a separate ruling.

The lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Indianapolis stemmed from the archdiocese’s pressuring Cathedral to fire Payne-Elliott over his marriage. The archdiocese had threatened to revoke the school’s Catholic affiliation if it did not do so. Payne Elliott’s lawsuit claimed these actions were illegal interference with the school’s functioning. Payne-Elliott previously reached a settlement with Cathedral High School back in 2019.

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis has been an epicenter of LGBTQ church workers issues. At least four workers were fired there in recent years. In 2019, the archdiocese similarly pressured Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School to fire Payne-Elliott’s husband, Layton, but that school refused to do so. Archbishop Charles Thompson revoked Brebeuf’s Catholic affiliation. The Jesuits’ appeal of that decision resulted in the Vatican suspending the Archdiocese’s decision.  The appeal is now before the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education. There are reports Cardinal Joseph Tobin has been asked to intervene in this dispute.

Previously, Shelly Fitzgerald, Lynn Starkey, and Kelly Fisher were also fired previously in LGBTQ-related disputes within the archdiocese. More than 100 church workers have lost their jobs in such disputes over the last decade.

In a hopeful sign, however, a federal judge ruled in favor of Fitzgerald and Starkey in their respective discrimination lawsuits. Law360 reported on the actions of U.S. District Judge Richard Young:

“Judge Young agreed [in April 2021], concluding the [Title VII] law’s legal carveouts for religious organizations don’t apply to the [ Fitzgerald] case. . .

“‘The court concludes that Title VII’s religious exemption does not bar Fitzgerald’s Title VII claims,’ Judge Young said. ‘The exemption prohibits claims of religious discrimination against religious employers when the employer favored a coreligionist, but it does not allow religious employers to discriminate on the basis of other protected characteristics, such as sexual orientation.’

“The judge also found it’s still too early to tell if the religious organizations’ First Amendment defenses hold up and cleared the case to move ahead.”

“Judge Young handed down a similar ruling in Starkey’s case in October, marking one of the first takes from the federal bench on the boundaries of legal religious exemptions in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision’s extending anti-discrimination protections to LGBTQ workers.”

The archdiocese has appealed these decisions in federal court. Joshua Payne-Elliott is considering whether to appeal this latest decision in state court.

Outside Indianapolis, the discrimination lawsuit of fired lesbian Noel Koenke was dismissed. Koenke claims that anti-LGBTQ discrimination at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia led her to resign in 2017. The Pennsylvania Capital-Star reported:

“Koenke filed suit in October 2019, claiming the university violated Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in educational programs receiving federal funds. Koenke maintains the university had no legal right to harass her. . .

“In December 2019, officials at St. Joe’s filed a 44-page brief, urging U.S. District Judge Nitza I. Quinones Alejandro to dismiss Koenke’s case as meritless. In its brief, the university acknowledged urging Koenke to be discreet about her same-sex marriage but insisted it had a legal right to do so.

“In January 2021, Alejandro granted the school’s request to dismiss Koenke’s lawsuit, relying heavily on the ‘ministerial exception’ doctrine. . .

“Alejandro said existing case law precludes her from allowing Koenke’s case to move forward. The judge also referred to Koenke as a ‘homosexual woman,’ which is terminology that’s discouraged by LGBT advocates.”

Combined, these lawsuits will begin to test exactly how the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings on questions of employment, religious liberty, and non-discrimination last summer are to be implemented in practice. Bondings 2.0 will continue to cover these developments as they play out.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, May 12, 2021

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