The court sided with a Catholic high school that fired a teacher who entered into a same-sex marriage. It is about freedom of religion, not LGBT rights.
by Massimo Introvigne
The Payne-Elliott case in Indiana has been widely seen as one whether conservative judges supported by a Republican-controlled state and influenced by an amicus brief submitted by Trump’s Department of Justice ruled against LGBT rights and uphold discrimination.
These comments are understandable in a polarized political situation. But there is another side of the coin. What was the real message of the Indiana Supreme Court, which sent back the case to the trial court that had initially ruled that it can move forward, and of the trial court which in its order of May 7 dismissed the case?
The plaintiff, Joshua Payne-Elliott, was a teacher at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis, which is owned and operated by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis. In 2018, he married another male teacher in an Indianapolis Jesuit Catholic high school, Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School. The Archbishop of Indianapolis ordered both schools to fire the teachers. Cathedral, which is directly controlled by the Archdiocese, fired Joshua Payne-Elliott in 2019. Brebeuf did not fire Payne-Elliott’s husband. When the Archbishop reacted by ordering that Brebeuf no longer identifies itself as a Catholic school, the Jesuits appealed to the Vatican, where the case is still pending. Joshua Payne-Elliott sued the Archdiocese in state court for discrimination.
Had the case not involved a same-sex marriage, the decision by the Indiana judges would have appeared as a matter of course. To protect themselves against discrimination lawsuits, religious schools in the U.S. often ask teachers to sign statements recognizing that they should upheld “in word and deed” the teachings of the religion, and acknowledging that breaching this statement will result in being dismissed. A string of decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court stated that these statements are valid and enforceable, and that teachers in religious schools fall under the so-called “ministerial exception.” A teacher in a religious school, the Supreme Court said, is essentially in the same position as a priest or pastor or rabbi, who can be fired if s/he denies essential teachings of the religion s/he is supposed to promote.
Some can sympathize with Brebeuf, who decided to keep the teacher who entered into a same-sex marriage, and perhaps Pope Francis’ Vatican will support Brebeuf. But this is precisely the point: the Brebeuf matter is being dealt with under Catholic canon law within the Catholic system, not by secular courts. When sanctioned by the Archbishop, Brebeuf did not sue him in an American court but appealed to the Vatican.
The Cathedral case is different. The principle affirmed by the Indiana judges (subject to a possible appeal) is not that discriminating against LGBT employees may be admissible, which would obviously run counter to a well-established case law. It is that religious institutions have the right to define what religious teachings they deem as essential, and fire employees who refuse to uphold these teachings, and the state has no business in interfering with this.
Whether entering into a same-sex marriage amounts to denying a teaching essential in Catholicism may be debated by theologians, but it is a matter for the higher instances of the Catholic Church to decide, not secular judges.
Had the judges decided otherwise, they would have established a dangerous precedent. A Muslim school might have been prevented from firing a teacher ostentatiously breaching the Ramadan fasting or eating pork. An orthodox Jewish school might have been prevented from firing a teacher eating non-kosher food and ridiculing Jewish dietary laws. In the end, religious schools would lose their distinctive religious character.
Maybe the Vatican, when deciding the case of Joshua Payne-Elliott’s husband, will promote some sort of settlement of these issues, which also involve lawsuits filed against the Archdiocese of Indianapolis by two female guidance counselors at another Catholic high school, Roncalli, who entered into a same-sex marriage and were fired.
In the meantime, the Indiana judges affirmed a key religious liberty principle, i.e., that religious organizations have a right to employ only personnel committed to their essential religious teachings, and to determine themselves which teachings are essential.