The US Justice Department is supporting the Archdiocese of Indianapolis in its religious freedom case, filing a friend-of-the-court brief Tuesday at the Indiana Supreme Court.
After the archdiocese was sued by a former teacher at a Catholic school, who was fired after attempting to contract a same-sex marriage, a state trial court in May denied the archdiocese’s motion to dismiss the case, and in June ordered the archdiocese to turn over documentation related to the case. The archdiocese then appealed to the Indiana supreme court to dismiss the case.
“The United States has a substantial interest in religious liberty,” the DOJ said in its Sept. 8 brief in the case.
The DOJ said that “religious employers are entitled to employ in key roles only persons whose beliefs and conduct are consistent with the employers’ religious precepts,” and the government cannot interfere “with the autonomy of religious organizations.”
In 2019, a former teacher at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis, Joshua Payne-Elliott, sued the archdiocese after he was dismissed from his teaching position in June 2019 for having contracted a same-sex marriage in 2017. His partner Layton is a teacher at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in the archdiocese.
Cathedral High School’s handbook states that the “personal conduct” of all teachers should “convey and be supportive of the teachings of the Catholic Church.”
Archbishop Charles Thompson of Indianapolis had directed both schools to dismiss the teachers for their same-sex marriage, or be faced with the removal of their Catholic identity. Brebeuf refused to fire Layton, and the archdiocese subsequently revoked the school’s Catholic identity.
Cathedral High School, however, dismissed Payne-Elliott, who then filed a lawsuit saying that the archdiocese unlawfully interfered with his contract with the school.
In July, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that two Catholic grade school teachers qualified as religious ministers, under federal law. Thus, the Court ruled in a 7-2 decision, religious schools can be protected from employment discrimination lawsuits under the “ministers exception” for their decisions to hire and fire such teachers.
Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru involved a religion teacher at Our Lady of Guadalupe School and a fifth-grade teacher at St. James Catholic School in California.
Following the Supreme Court decision, the archdiocese had appealed to the trial court to reconsider its demand for documentation, in light of the high court’s decision; the trial court refused and the archdiocese then appealed to the state supreme court.
The DOJ argued Tuesday that the archdiocese has a right to determine the Catholic identity of schools under its jurisdiction, and that a court could not review that decision. Furthermore, the archdiocese is protected by the Our Lady of Guadalupe decision in its directive to Cathedral High School to dismiss Payne-Elliott.