Judges battle church autonomy in fight against cathedral teacher’s firing
During oral argument June 28 in the dispute between the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and the former Cathedral High School teacher who was fired for entering into a same-sex marriage, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled debated with the question of when can the civil government exercise its authority over the church. Questions?
The archdiocese says the lawsuit filed by Joshua Payne-Elliott looks into internal church affairs and, if allowed to proceed, would unacceptably entangle the court in issues of Catholic faith and practice. . Payne-Elliott, the teacher, countered that the case was not ripe for trial and that discovery should be allowed to move forward to determine whether the ‘church autonomy’ defense of the archdiocese applied.
Justices Steven David, Mark Massa, Geoffrey Slaughter and Christopher Goff asked both sides how far the judiciary can preside over this case before the courts violate constitutional protections on religious freedom. They questioned the scope and limits of a defense of church autonomy, what kind of discovery would be allowed, and how the court can avoid getting into questions of canon law. and faith governance.
Chief Justice Loretta Rush issued an order on May 16 saying she would not participate in the case. She did not provide a reason for her recusal.
Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel for Becket, a nonprofit organization focused on protecting religious freedom, represented the archdiocese. Matthew Gutwein, partner at Delaney & DeLaney LLC, represented Payne-Elliott. Additionally, Peter Rusthoven, a partner at Barnes & Thornburg, represented Lambda Legal who submitted an amicus brief in the case.
In their arguments before the Supreme Court, the lawyers presented very contrasting views on what the justices were being asked to do. Goodrich claimed that the court had a very limited ability to adjudicate ecclesiastical matters.
“Through this lawsuit, plaintiff seeks the power of the Indiana judiciary to penalize a religious act of internal church governance, specifically an ecclesiastical directive from an archbishop to the Catholic school, instructing the school what religious rules she had to follow to remain Catholic,” Goodrich told the judges. “It is a fundamental act of church governance and penalization. It would violate several First Amendment doctrines, including church autonomy, expressive association, and exception. ministerial.
Gutwein countered that the church cannot act without regard to civil law.
“The idea that any religious organization, when faced with a tort action, a breach of contract action, a lawsuit, can simply say ‘church autonomy’ without any evidence, without no documentation, not resenting any affidavits and…the trial would be over is a most extraordinary proposition,” Gutwein explained. “It violates the general rule that religious organizations are fully subject to civil law even when their conduct is motivated by religious beliefs.”
Trace a line
Payne-Elliott sued the Archdiocese for tortious interference with his employment contract after he was fired from Cathedral High School. In 2017, he married her husband, and even when the school learned of his marriage, he still had his teaching contract renewed three times.
Cathedral renewed their contract for the 2019-20 school year, but later reversed their decision and terminated Payne-Elliott’s employment. The school said the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis ordered the contract terminated due to Payne-Elliott’s sexual orientation and marital status.
In Joshua Payne-Elliott v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of IndianapolisPayne-Elliott claimed the Archdiocese “intentionally interfered with his contractual relationship and intentionally interfered with his employment relationship.”
The Marion Superior Court initially denied the Archdiocese’s motions to dismiss, reconsider, and seek judgment on the pleadings. However, with the appointment of a second special judge, the lower court dismissed the case without explanation.
The Indiana Court of Appeals then overruled, and the archdiocese filed for transfer to the Indiana Supreme Court. The judges decided to hold oral arguments before deciding whether or not to accept the transfer.
David asked Goodrich about the limits of church autonomy.
“So where is that line drawn and how do we guard against the essential application of qualified immunity?” David asked. “’Sorry, it’s a church, game over.’ Help me navigate this.
Goodrich responded that claims that do not involve internal church communications could be challenged. The Payne-Elliott complaint, on the other hand, attacks religious liberty because the issues raised include “an essential aspect of church governance” and a “manifest violation” of Catholic moral teaching.
“You will ask on a case-by-case basis, ‘Is this claim likely to entangle the civil courts in religious matters,'” Goodrich replied. “And here you don’t have to speculate about it. It has happened before with the actions of the first special judge in this case and the way the plaintiff pleads it.
Gutwein argued that the case was unclear as to whether the decision to fire Payne-Elliott was based on church teachings. He repeatedly noted that an ecclesiastical directive was never presented and is not part of the record.
“In our complaint, we allege Cathedral was ordered to fire him,” Gutwein said. “The defendant here denies this allegation…but then claims, based on the directive he denies ever issuing, that he should be entitled to full immunity.”
As the case progressed, Payne-Elliott argued that more discoveries were needed. He sought to determine whether the archdiocese ordered schools to fire teachers suspected of violating church teachings on marriage, including divorce and unmarried cohabitation.
Massa, echoing David, asked how the court could consider whether the archdiocese was justified in its actions without “getting completely entangled in the question of canon law and the governance of the faith?”
Gutwein pointed to the lack of discovery.
“We just don’t know because we haven’t had a discovery,” he said. “But the fact remains that their conduct may be religiously motivated and not justified.”
Goodrich pushed back, saying the archdiocese complied with discovery requests and returned “hundreds of pages” and responded to questioning. The only discovery the church has withheld is to name each employee who allegedly violated Catholic teachings.
Providing such information, Goodrich said, would be “grossly intrusive into the internal affairs of the church.”
Further, in rebuttal, Goodrich said the dispute had come to the attention of the Vatican.
“The Vatican in Rome is reviewing the archbishop’s directive and asking if it was justified in terms of canon law,” Goodrich told the judges. “You are here in Indiana asking the same question: ‘Is the Archbishop’s ecclesiastical directive to Cathedral justified?’ This should be deeply disturbing. This shows that this is a lawsuit challenging an essential aspect of church governance and, in view of the complaint, which cannot proceed.