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Court to reconsider ministerial exception case

Fired Catholic schoolteacher’s lawsuit gets a second look

Cathedral High School in Indianapolis Facebook/Cathedral High School

Court to reconsider ministerial exception case

A teacher fired from a Catholic high school in Indianapolis over a same-sex relationship will get a second chance to make his case in court. An Indiana state appeals court last week sent the case back to the trial court for reconsideration.

In a unanimous ruling, the three-judge panel of the Indiana Court of Appeals concluded the trial court judge acted prematurely when he dismissed Joshua Payne-Elliott’s case without any fact-finding or hearing. Judge Elizabeth Tavitas wrote that a primary legal question was “whether Payne-Elliott’s job duties as a teacher at an archdiocese-affiliated school rendered him a ‘minister.’”

In 2017, Payne-Elliott entered into a same-sex civil union in violation of a Cathedral High School employment contract that requires employees to live in compliance with Catholic teaching. The Archdiocese of Indianapolis informed the school it had to enforce church teaching or lose its affiliation with the Roman Catholic Church. After the school failed to renew Payne-Elliott’s contract in 2019, the social studies teacher sued the archdiocese.

The Marion Superior Court of Indiana dismissed the case on May 7 based on the “ministerial exception” doctrine, which grants churches and other religious organizations autonomy in decisions regarding employees who qualify as ministers.

Several recent cases before the U.S. Supreme Court have involved the ministerial exception. In July 2020, the Supreme Court in Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrissey-Berru upheld the right of two Catholic elementary schools to fire teachers who performed “vital religious duties”—praying with students, teaching and modeling the Catholic faith, and attending Mass. Earlier this year, a federal district court in Indiana said another Indianapolis Catholic high school could fire a guidance counselor who violated church teaching by entering a same-sex relationship. (The counselor, Lynn Starkey, has appealed.)

In two other cases, the Supreme Court has the opportunity to further clarify the doctrine’s reach. Gordon College, an evangelical school, is asking the justices to review a Massachusetts appeals court ruling in favor of Margaret DeWeese-Boyd, who accused the school of denying her a promotion over her opposition to its policies on sexuality. And Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, a nonprofit homeless ministry, is asking the court to reverse a Washington Supreme Court ruling requiring it to hire employees who do not share its religious beliefs. The court has not yet accepted either case.

In the latest Indiana case, it’s unclear if the appellate judges just wanted more facts or were reconsidering the reach of the ministerial exception.  Luke Goodrich, a Becket attorney who represented the archdiocese, said the ruling is more about process than substance, noting it doesn’t address the “core issue” of whether Catholic institutions can require full support of their religious mission.

Steve West

Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C.



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