Indiana Supreme Court Upholds Firing Of Catholic School Teacher Over Same-Sex Marriage
Cathedral High School, courtesy of Becket
Cathedral High School, courtesy of Becket

Indiana’s Supreme Court has ruled unanimously in favor of upholding the termination of a former Catholic high school teacher due to his same-sex marriage.

The unanimous 4-0 decision affirmed that the school is protected by church autonomy under the First Amendment in its firing of Joshua Payne-Elliott in 2019.

“Religious freedom protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution encompasses the right of religious institutions ‘to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine,’” Justice Geoffrey Slaughter wrote in the opinion.

The ruling affirmed that the courts must allow the church to operate without state interference.

“Courts can’t decide what it means to be Catholic—only the Church can do that,” said Luke Goodrich, VP & senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented the case. “By keeping the judiciary out of religious identity, the Indiana Supreme Court just protected all religious institutions to be free from government interference in deciding their core religious values.” 

The history of the case reaches back to 2017 when Payne-Elliott married Layton Payne-Elliott, a math teacher at another school. In 2019, Payne-Elliott was terminated from his job as a teacher at Catholic Cathedral High School in Indianapolis over entering into a same-sex marriage in violation of church teachings.

Payne-Elliott sued the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

His spouse worked as a teacher at another area school, Brebeuf Jesuit, that declined to fire him over the same issue. On June 21, 2020, the Archbishop determined that Brebeuf Jesuit could no longer use the Catholic name and would not be recognized as a Catholic institution.

An Indiana trial court dismissed the lawsuit in favor of the Archdiocese, but an appeal in May 2021 by Payne-Elliott’s legal representatives led to a case before the state’s Court of Appeals that reversed the decision. The case was then appealed by the Archdiocese and heard by the state’s Supreme Court ahead of the unanimous ruling in its favor.

“The court’s decision today was a commonsense ruling in favor of our most fundamental rights,” said Goodrich. “Religious schools will only be able to pass down the faith to the next generation if they can freely receive guidance from their churches on what their faith is. We are grateful the court recognized this healthy form of separation of church and state.”

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