Appeals Court Reinstates Fired LGBTQ Church Worker’s Discrimination Lawsuit

Joshua Payne-Elliott, right, with husband Layton Payne-Elliott

A court has reinstated the discrimination lawsuit of an LGBTQ former church worker fired by a Catholic high school.

Joshua Payne-Elliot’s suit was previously dismissed, but in the latest development, the Indiana Court of Appeals now has ruled that a “Marion County Superior Court erred in dismissing Payne-Elliot’s lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Indianapolis” and reversed the dismissal.

Payne-Elliot first filed the lawsuit in 2019 shortly after being fired over his same-gender marriage. When the initial judge recused himself, Judge Lance Hamner took the case and dismissed the lawsuit in May 2020 with a one-page order that “only cited a lack of jurisdiction for the claims as reason to dismiss.” Now, the three-judge state appeals court ruled that this decision was incorrect.

The Indianapolis Star reported:

“The appellate court found that the trial court did have jurisdiction to hear the case and that it was too early in the process to dismiss the case on summary judgement. It also ruled that the court erred in dismissing the case with prejudice, which would have meant that the same claim could not be refiled in that court.”

Payne-Elliot was fired by Cathedral High School, where he had been a teacher since 2006. His firing in June 2019 came after the Archdiocese of Indianapolis required its Catholic schools to implement morality clauses prohibiting same-gender marriages. Payne-Elliot’s lawsuit claims that the Archdiocese “illegally interfered with his contractual and employment relationship with Cathedral, causing the school to terminate him.”

The archdiocese has argued that the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment prohibits courts from deciding matters on internal church policies. Many Catholic institutions who are brought to court in response to their unjust termination of LGBTQ employees use this defense. Payne-Elliot is fighting to assert that his employment is with the school, not the church.

Payne-Elliot’s story is a hopeful example of how LGBTQ Catholic employees can overcome discrimination committed by church institutions. He once again has a chance to bring the archdiocese to justice with the lawsuit reinstated. But, regardless of the legal outcome, it is ultimately up to Catholics to tell their church leaders to treat every employee, especially LGBTQ employees, with respect, love, and dignity.

Elise Dubravec (she/her), New Ways Ministry, December 7, 2021

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