Joshua Payne-Elliott was chaperoning a trip last month when he heard that his husband’s school had been stripped of its Catholic status for refusing to fire him at the demands of the local archdiocese. Payne-Elliott, who worked at a different Catholic high school in Indianapolis, knew his institution’s president would soon face a similar decision.
Two days later, on June 23, Cathedral High School fired Payne-Elliott, who had been a world language and social studies teacher for nearly 13 years.
The school’s president “stated that sole reason for Payne-Elliott’s termination was, ‘the Archbishop directed that we [Cathedral] can’t have someone with a public same-sex marriage here and remain Catholic,’” according to a complaint.
Now, Payne-Elliott is suing the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, accusing the Catholic Church of discrimination and interfering with his teaching contract. Payne-Elliott is seeking compensation for lost earnings and benefits, as well as emotional distress, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Marion Superior Court.
In the years since same-sex marriage has become legal, religious schools have grappled with how to handle faculty and staff who enter into unions recognized by the state but condemned by their institutions, with many opting to fire the LGBTQ teachers, leading to litigation and outrage.
“We hope that this case will put a stop to the targeting of LGBTQ employees and their families,” Payne-Elliott said in a news release, the Associated Press reported.
The archdiocese has remained steadfast, telling the Indianapolis Star that it has the right to determine appropriate conduct for teachers.
Two years ago, the archdiocese began requiring all Catholic schools to write into contracts that teachers must uphold church teachings. There are almost 70 Catholic schools, including 11 high schools, in the archdiocese, which enrolled more than 23,000 students during the 2018-2019 academic year, The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss reported.
“Religious liberty, which is a hallmark of the U.S. Constitution and has been tested in the U.S. Supreme Court, acknowledges that religious organizations may define what conduct is not acceptable and contrary to the teachings of its religion, for its school leaders, guidance counselors, teachers and other ministers of the faith,” the archdiocese said to the Star.
On June 20, though, Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School defied the archdiocese’s demands to fire Layton Payne-Elliott, Joshua’s husband, calling him a “highly capable and qualified teacher.” The next day, the archdiocese stripped Brebeuf of its Catholic status.
Two days later, Joshua Payne-Elliott met with Robert Bridges, Cathedral’s president. Bridges told him he was fired, Payne-Elliott alleges in his lawsuit, despite praising him as “a very good teacher” and adding that the decision — made “with a gun to our head” — was not based on performance, but his personal life.
In a letter to the Cathedral community released the same day Payne-Elliott was fired, Bridges and Matt Cohoat, the chairman of the school’s board of directors, outlined the reasoning behind “an agonizing decision, made after 22 months of earnest discussion and extensive dialogue with the Archdiocese of Indianapolis about Cathedral’s continued Catholic identity.”
“Archbishop Thompson made it clear that Cathedral’s continued employment of a teacher in a public, same-sex marriage would result in our forfeiting our Catholic identity due to our employment of an individual living in contradiction to Catholic teaching on marriage,” Bridges and Cohoat wrote.
They added that “to remain a Catholic Holy Cross School, Cathedral must follow the direct guidance to us by Archbishop Thompson and separate from the teacher.”
Archbishop Charles Thompson, a 2017 Pope Francis appointee, insisted at a news conference last month that the cases at Cathedral and Brebeuf were “not a witch hunt.”
In an interview published early Friday in the archdiocese’s newspaper, Thompson, 58, said that he’d found support in the church for his move to remove the teachers.
“There are people on all sides,” said the archbishop. “Young people have expressed support for me, and young people have expressed hurt and disillusionment. The same thing among older adults.”
Pushed on a recent Pew study that found 61 percent of people who identify as Catholic support same-sex marriage, Thompson dismissed the significance of the findings.
“I remember one time, of all places, on a door of a science lab, a poster read, ‘Truth is not determined by majority opinion,’” he said. “The Church has taught for 2,000 years that marriage by nature is designed by God as one man and one woman.”
The events in Indianapolis are just the most recent contentious dismissals of LGBTQ teachers at Catholic schools in recent years. In 2013, a foreign languages teacher at a Catholic school in Bensalem, Pa., was fired after he emailed administrators to tell them he was applying for a marriage license to wed his partner. In 2017, a director of religious education at a Philadelphia Catholic school was released when parents learned she was in a same-sex marriage. Last year, a first-grade teacher at a Catholic school in Miami was let go shortly after her wedding.
Other Catholic schools in Indianapolis have also been recently embroiled in similar cases. The Star reported that two guidance counselors, Shelly Fitzgerald and Lynn Starkey, were fired from the same Catholic high school within the last year for their respective same-sex marriages.
Kathleen DeLaney, Payne-Elliott’s attorney, told the AP that the teacher had reached a settlement with Cathedral, one that includes the school assisting him in future employment options.
Payne-Elliott has also filed a complaint against the archdiocese with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for allegedly retaliating against him for his sexual orientation.
“We intend to hold the Archdiocese accountable for violations of state and federal law,” DeLaney said.
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