The Indiana Supreme Court has upheld the dismissal of a high school teacher in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis who was fired after he contracted a same-sex marriage.
The court decision could pave the way for a Vatican ruling in a related dispute between the Indiana archdiocese and the Society of Jesus.
In a 4-0 dismissal opinion issued Aug. 31, the state court said the Indianapolis archdiocese was protected by the “church autonomy doctrine” of the First Amendment when it instructed Cathedral High School to dismiss Joshua Payne-Elliot from his teaching position in June 2019.
Payne-Elliot, who taught social studies at Cathedral High School from 2006 until 2019, alleged that when the Archdiocese of Indianapolis directed high school administrators to enforce a morals clause in his contract, it “discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation and retaliated against him for opposing sexual orientation discrimination.”
But the state high court said the archdiocese has a First Amendment right to set standards and expectations pertaining to Catholic identity in its high schools.
“The archdiocese’s decision whether a school maintains its Catholic identity is an internal matter that concerns both church policy and administration.”
The court said that the Indianapolis archdiocese gave Cathedral High School a choice over Payne-Elliot’s employment: the school “could either retain its recognition as a Catholic school by following the archdiocese’s instruction on what was required to be recognized as a Catholic school or forfeit continued recognition.”
“This choice reflects the archdiocese’s authority to declare which schools are Catholic,” the court found.
The court’s Wednesday ruling could indicate that a lingering canonical case on a related situation will soon be resolved as well.
The archdiocese has been mired in a canonical dispute with Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School over its 2019 instruction that the Jesus school should dismiss another teacher, Layton Payne-Elliot, who had contracted a same-sex civil marriage with Joshua Payne-Elliot, the Cathedral High teacher.
Brebeuf school leaders became aware in 2017 that its teacher had contracted a same-sex marriage. In 2019, Archbishop Charles Thompson instructed both Cathedral High and Brebeuf Jesuit not to renew the contracts of the two teachers. Cathedral complied, but Brebeuf did not.
The archbishop subsequently prohibited the Jesuit school from identifying itself as Catholic, and the Midwest Province of the Society of Jesus appealed that decision to the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy, which suspended Thompson’s decree while the matter is being deliberated.
The appeal centers on canonical questions regarding the scope and nature of an archbishop’s authority with regard to schools administered by religious institutes. It does not ask the Vatican to judge directly whether a teacher in a same-sex marriage can or should be a teacher in a Catholic school, focusing instead on a jurisdictional dispute over the authority of the diocesan bishop and the Society of Jesus.
While the canonical case has lingered for more than two years, speculation has mounted that the Vatican had withheld its decision in order to avoid prejudicing an eventual civil court ruling. Some curial officials feared that if a Vatican decision did not support Thompson, it might influence Indiana judges, leading to a large financial judgment against the archdiocese.
But with the civil court case now resolved, a decision on the Vatican’s case could be forthcoming.
An instruction published in March by the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education could shed light on what direction a decision will take.
The text emphasizes that school and Church leaders have an obligation to protect and promote the Catholic ecclesial identity of their schools, and to ensure that teachers and students meet the Church’s criteria for participation in educational apostolates.
The instruction encourages collaborative dialogue between bishops and school leaders, while affirming that bishops exercise canonical governance over personnel and doctrinal matters.
The Vatican instruction especially affirms the canonical right of the local diocesan bishop to appoint or remove religion teachers, and to remove other teachers in diocesan schools, or require that a teacher be removed in other cases.
But it also underscores the importance of affording a teacher due process - some form of an investigation, opportunity for a canonical advocate, and some effort to find another solution before a teacher is terminated for some issue of faith or public morality.
However the canonical case goes, it will be mediated by a figure well-known to the both the Society of Jesus and the Archdiocese of Indianapolis: Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark.
Senior Vatican officials close to both the Congregation for Catholic Education and in the Secretariat of State independently confirmed to The Pillar last year that Tobin was asked in 2020 to help mediate between the two parties.
Tobin was previously the Archbishop of Indianapolis, and was before that secretary of the Vatican congregation responsible for overseeing religious institutes.
But curial officials have said the Vatican hopes the cardinal will find a resolution agreeable to both the archdiocese and the Jesuit province that runs the high school.
“It is to be hoped that we can see an end to this which does not need the congregation to declare something, but can come from the parties themselves —this would be much better,” one official, with knowledge of the decision to appoint Tobin as mediator, told The Pillar last year.
One curial official familiar with the case told The Pillar that Tobin was an “obvious and trustworthy” mediator for all sides, retaining close links with his former archdiocese as well as a good reputation in Rome and with the Jesuits, who run the school.
“The situation [when it was appealed to the congregation in 2019] was very adversarial, very emotional, you can say,” the official said at the time.
“It was decided that reconciliation is needed first, not a judgment [from the congregation]. Cardinal Tobin is very trusted, very good at restoring difficult situations in this way.”
A second official close to the congregation put it more bluntly: “It’s a very sensitive case and getting it resolved in a way that respects the local [arch]bishop and doesn’t provoke a whole Jesuit province matters.”
Tobin has been outspoken among bishops in calling for a more “welcoming” Church for Catholics who identify as LGBT, even advocating in 2019 for “a rethinking of the mystery of human sexuality.”
But the cardinal did not reinstate a teacher who was fired in the Archdiocese of Newark after contracting a same-sex marriage, shortly before Tobin became Newark’s archbishop. The Newark archdiocese reached a legal settlement with that teacher in 2018.
The Archdiocese of Indianapolis directed media inquiries to its attorney, who could not be reached for comment before press time. Payne-Elliot’s attorneys told The Pillar Wednesday afternoon that a press statement would be forthcoming.