Canonical verdict due on teacher same-sex marriage after Indiana court dismisses lawsuit

Analysis

An Indiana court dismissed on Friday a lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Indianapolis over the firing of a teacher who had entered a same-sex civil union. The case, involving a former teacher at Cathedral High School, is linked to a canonical case in the archdiocese, which may now move ahead and could be far more significant in its result.

In 2017, the archdiocese became aware that two teachers, Joshua Payne-Elliot and Layton Payne-Elliot, had contracted a same-sex civil marriage. Joshua Payne-Elliot was a teacher at Cathedral, an archdiocesan school, and Layton Payne-Elliot taught at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School which, while Catholic, is administered by the local province of the Society of Jesus.

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Indianapolis Archbishop Charles Thompson directed both schools not to renew the teachers’ contracts when they came up for renewal, which Cathedral did in 2019, triggering the lawsuit which was dismissed on May 7. However, Brebeuf refused to dismiss Layton Payne-Elliot, triggering a stand-off which escalated quickly and which has yet to be resolved.

Thompson’s order to dismiss the teachers was made in line with archdiocesan policy for Catholic schools which designates all teachers as “ministers” of the Gospel because “it is their duty and privilege to ensure that students receive instruction in Catholic doctrine and practice.” 

“To effectively bear witness to Christ, whether they teach religion or not, all ministers in their professional and private lives must convey and be supportive of Catholic Church teaching,” the policy states.

When the Jesuit-run school refused the archbishop’s order to not renew Payne-Elliot’s contract, in June, 2019, Thompson issued a decree prohibiting the school from calling itself Catholic, a move which could have far-reaching consequences for the school, both for the daily lives of its pupils and for the school’s administration — including its tax status.

That decree was appealed to the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education by the Jesuit province, which suspended the decree’s effects while the case is considered. Since then, The Pillar has reported that the Congregation has asked Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, the former Archbishop of Indianapolis, to mediate the standoff.

The situation remains complicated and its resolution uncertain, with several outcomes possible, any of which would likely be portrayed as an ideological move by the Vatican.

The archdiocesan policy designating all teachers in Catholic schools as “ministers” is not unique, and has been introduced in many dioceses in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in the case Hosanna Tabor v. EEOC. The policy is widely held by lawyers and chancery officials as the best means of ensuring the Church is able to govern Catholic schools free from civil interference. 

But, thanks to the Brebeuf case, the canonical scope of that policy is now in dispute.

Canon law allows for the diocesan bishop to provide for the “general regulation” of Catholic schools in the diocese, though it also recognizes the “autonomy regarding the internal direction” of Catholic schools run by religious orders. 

Within this context, there are several canonical questions posed by the Brebeuf standoff. The first concerns the archdiocesan policy designating all teachers as, effectively, teachers of religion. While this has been tested in civil courts and found an acceptable expression of the religious character of Catholic schools, its canonical implications are less settled.

While canon law gives the bishop the power to “appoint or approve teachers of religion and even to remove them or demand that they be removed if a reason of religion or morals requires it,” stretching this canon to accommodate the archdiocesan policy’s designation of all teachers as teachers of religion is untested at the level of Rome.

Were Rome to find in favor of the policy’s applicability in the case of Brebeuf, it would be seen by many as opening the door for local bishops to exercise a far greater level of authority over the internal workings of religiously-administered schools. 

On the other hand, should Rome effectively strike down the policy’s designation of all teachers in Catholic schools as teachers of religion, that could be used in a renewed challenge in U.S. courts to Catholic schools’ ability to hire and fire teachers in line with the moral requirements of the faith. 

Either of those results would likely be widely interpreted as a direct Vatican vote on the underlying issue of whether it is appropriate for a person in a same-sex civil union to teach in a Catholic school, something the Vatican is unlikely to want to be seen to do.

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The Vatican could also issue a kind of split decision in the case, ruling that Archbishop Thompson’s policy (and therefore his decree revoking the Catholic identity of Brebeuf for failure to comply) is invalid as a matter of legal process in the exercise of executive power, but leaving open the door for him to enshrine the policy in particular law (legislative power) for the archdiocese. 

While that could resolve the immediate impasse without undermining either the bishop’s authority or upholding his action against Brebeuf, it could also set the stage for the entire process to begin again.

The decision to ask Cardinal Tobin of Newark to mediate suggests that Rome is seeking a fourth way to resolve the case, one which diffuses the situation and restores the status quo ante, and does not involve Rome having to officially rule either for or against the archbishop. But, given the sensitivity of the underlying issue, brokering that kind of settlement could prove difficult. 

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis cannot, in view of its stated policy, accept any outcome which involves Payne-Elliot remaining in post as a teacher at the school — and were he to do so it would be widely interpreted as a veto of the teacher policy by the back door. 

Whether a negotiated departure for Payne-Elliot can be struck which allows Brebeuf and the Jesuit province to save face remains an open question.

While there are at least four possible ways for the situation to be resolved, however delicately the matter is handled and its conclusion is presented, the result is unlikely to be interpreted as a matter of legal principle. 

Whatever the canonical rights or wrongs of the process which created the current standoff, either Payne-Elliot will remain a teacher at a Catholic school, or he will not.