Supreme Court hears arguments in Catholic school gay teacher firing

By: - June 29, 2022 7:00 am
Gay teacher fired

Indiana Supreme Court, from left to right: Mark Massa, Steven David, Loretta Rush, Christopher Goff and Geoffrey Slaughter. (Photo from Indiana Supreme Court.)

INDIANAPOLIS – The Indiana Supreme Court weighed arguments Tuesday over the firing of a gay teacher from an Indianapolis Catholic school, determining whether the Archdiocese of Indianapolis ‘unjustifiably’ interfered with the teacher’s contract.

Joshua Payne-Elliott married his partner in 2017 while a German teacher at Cathedral High School, a Catholic school under the purview of the Archdiocese. During the 2020-2021 school year, shortly after renewing his contract, Cathedral fired Payne-Elliott following a church directive, known as an ecclesiastical declaration, from an unnamed archbishop.

A trial court dismissed the case, citing jurisdiction, but the Indiana Court of Appeals sided with Payne-Elliott, saying the court had jurisdiction to hear the case.

The Indiana Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments but hasn’t yet decided if it will accept the appeal and allow the case to proceed. 

Arguments from the defense

Luke Goodrich, a religious freedom attorney with the D.C.-based Becket law firm, argued that the directive to fire Payne-Elliott amounted to internal church governance and cannot be regulated under the First Amendment.

“(Courts recognize) that church autonomy carves out a fundamental realm in which civil courts and civil governments are not meant to intrude,” Goodrich said. “It means that courts need to pause before they intrude into that realm.”

Four Supreme Court Justices, led by Justice Steven H. David, considered where to draw a line for litigating civil issues without “essentially applying qualified immunity” for religious institutions.

David oversaw the court in the absence of Chief Justice Loretta H. Rush, a Catholic, who recused herself from the case.


The Archdiocese didn’t fulfill some of the plaintiff’s requests for supporting documents, including the directive itself or its author. Goodrich said the church also didn’t share a list of employees at every Catholic School who allegedly violated church teachings such as: divorce, annulment, cohabitation, premarital sex, exramarital sex, birth control, sterilization, adultery or fornication. The above violations, as well as same-sex marriage, go against teachings of the Catholic Church.

“That would be grossly intrusive into the internal affairs of the church (and) it would out a bunch of third parties that aren’t even in front of the court,” Goodrich said. “Maybe most importantly, it would deeply entangle the civil court in religious questions.”

Counter arguments for Payne-Elliott

Peter Rusthoven, an Indianapolis attorney representing the teacher, said the Church’s claims outlined “an extraordinary, sweeping and unchallengeable form of immunity.”

Attorney Peter Rusthoven (Photo from Barnes & Thornburg LLP)

“The question is not whether that belief is sincere; the question is not whether they have that influence,” Rusthoven said. “The question is… does the Church not have any civil responsibility for the consequences of a decision?”

Matthew Gutwein, another Indianapolis attorney arguing against the Church, said their attorneys believe  the judges should just accept its word without challenge, since the directive is protected from disclosure under church autonomy. 

“The notion that any religious organization… can merely say church autonomy, without any evidence… and the lawsuit be over is a quite extraordinary proposition,” Gutwein said. “It violates the general rule that religious organizations are fully subject to civil law even when their conduct is motivated by religious belief.”

Gutwein highlighted other limitations of religious beliefs imposed by courts, such as the case of Bob Jones University, which lost its tax-exempt status when it claimed its racial discimination against applicants was a religious belief. Other cases included forcing churches acting as employers to adhere to child labor laws, payments for Social Security and minimum wage laws – even when one religious insitution said their religion required them to pay women less than their male counterparts.

“They lost every one of those cases,” Gutwein said. “The general rule is that a religious motivation does not relieve a religious organization (from) complying with general law.”

The defendants asked for a “narrow” ruling that it claimed wouldn’t jeopardize future cases concerning church autonomy but would assure other religious institutions in Indiana that they wouldn’t endure something similar.

Goodrich, in rebuttal, noted that the ecclesiastical order was quoted throughout the complaint but hadn’t been turned over to the plaintiff.

“You could hand over every directive, you could hand over the personnel file of every employee ever accused of violating Church teaching,” Goodrich said. “There is no set of facts where the plaintiff gets to enlist a civil court to punish an ecclesiastical act.”

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Whitney Downard
Whitney Downard

A native of upstate New York, Whitney previously covered statehouse politics for CNHI’s nine Indiana papers, focusing on long-term healthcare facilities and local government. Prior to her foray into Indiana politics, she worked as a general assignment reporter for The Meridian Star in Meridian, Mississippi. Whitney is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University (#GoBonnies!), a community theater enthusiast and cat mom.