August 21, 2019

Archdiocese of Indianapolis asks court to reject lawsuit over rules for Catholic schools

Archdiocese says former teacher’s claims are barred by the First Amendment

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis today asked an Indiana court to dismiss a lawsuit by a former Catholic school teacher who is attempting to challenge the Catholic Church’s rules governing Catholic schools. In a motion filed in Payne-Elliott v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis, the Archdiocese explains that the lawsuit is barred by the First Amendment because it is asks a secular court to interfere in the internal governance of the Catholic Church.

Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis are dedicated to uniting faith and educational excellence through Gospel values, prayer, and sacramental preparation. For over 100 years, Cathedral High School has been a ministry of the Catholic Church seeking to communicate the Catholic faith to the next generation. Teachers at Cathedral sign a contract agreeing to be witnesses of Catholic principles in word and deed. When a teacher at Cathedral publicly entered a same-sex marriage in violation of his contract and of Catholic teaching, the Archdiocese spent almost two years in dialogue with Cathedral to discern the most appropriate pastoral response. The Archdiocese eventually informed Cathedral that if it wished to remain affiliated with the Catholic Church, it could not continue employing a teacher who lived in open violation of Catholic teaching. Desiring to remain a part of the Catholic Church, Cathedral ended its employment relationship with Mr. Payne-Elliott. Mr. Payne-Elliott then sued the Archdiocese, alleging that its rules for Catholic schools violate Indiana law.

“The Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized that churches have a constitutional right to determine rules for religious schools, and that religious schools have a constitutional right to hire leaders who support the schools’ religious mission,” said Jay Mercer, attorney for the Archdiocese. “Families rely on the Archdiocese to uphold the fullness of Catholic social teaching throughout its schools, and the Constitution fully protects the Church’s efforts to do so.”

The relationship between Cathedral and the Archdiocese is governed by Catholic canon law, which says that “no school is to bear the name Catholic” without the Archbishop’s consent, and which requires the Archbishop to ensure that Catholic teachers are “outstanding in correct doctrine and integrity of life.” The Employee Handbook for teachers at Cathedral further states that teachers must support the teachings of the Catholic Church and serve as role-models for a Christ-centered lifestyle.

“This case strikes at the heart of the First Amendment’s protections for separation of church and state,” the Archdiocese’s motion says. “The Indiana Supreme Court could not have been any clearer over a century ago: ‘No power save that of the church can rightfully declare who is a Catholic.’”

The case is pending in Marion County Superior Court, and a ruling on the Archdiocese’s request is expected later this year.

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