A former Catholic school teacher is suing the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, saying that he was fired because of his sexual orientation.
Joshua Payne-Elliott had taught at Cathedral High School for 13 years. But despite renewing his contract in May, the school fired him a month later under the directive of the archdiocese, he says.
On Monday, Payne-Elliott’s attorney announced a confidential settlement with Cathedral High School. His new lawsuit is against the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, which he says forced the high school to fire him.
The dispute between the archdiocese and Payne-Elliott, who is publicly named for the first time in the suit, is unusual because his husband is also a teacher at a Catholic high school in Indianapolis. His husband teaches at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School, which was also asked by the archdiocese to fire their teacher after the same-sex marriage was made public in 2017 on social media. The Jesuits refused.
“We hope that this case will put a stop to the targeting of LGBTQ employees and their families,” Payne-Elliott said in a statement provided by his attorney.
Cathedral High School fired the teacher in late June following 22 months of deliberation and after Archdiocese of Indianapolis Archbishop Charles Thompson told the school it would forfeit its ability to be recognized or identified as a Catholic institution by the archdiocese.
The archbishop issued his ultimatum after a member of the Catholic community saw that the teacher had announced his marriage on social media and complained to the archdiocese, multiple sources told CNN.
Payne-Elliot alleges the Archdiocese illegally interfered with his contractual and employment relationship with Cathedral High School, causing the school to fire him.
In a statement Wednesday, the Archdiocese of Indianapolis said it considers all teachers, school leaders and guidance counselors at its schools to be “ministers and witnesses of the faith, who are expected to uphold the teachings of the Church in their daily lives, both in and out of school.”
“Religious liberty, which is a hallmark of the US Constitution and has been tested in the US Supreme Court,” the statement continued, “acknowledges that the 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.”
Like similar cases nationwide, the outcome may hinge on whether the courts agree that Payne-Elliott is a “minister” of the Catholic faith. Under the “ministerial exception” courts generally have given broad leeway for religious institutions to hire and fire religious staff as they see fit.
But Kathleen DeLaney, Payne-Elliott’s attorney, argues that her client should not be considered a minister. He taught language and social studies, she said, and was not involved in religious education.
“We have countervailing evidence in terms of how the school looked at him and whether the school considered him a minister,” DeLaney told CNN.
Payne-Elliott has filed charges of discrimination with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, asserting that the Archdiocese discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation and retaliated against him for opposing sexual orientation discrimination.
That investigation is underway and should be completed within 180 days, DeLaney said.
“We intend to hold the Archdiocese accountable for violations of state and federal law,” she said of the suit, filed in Marion County, Indiana.
Payne-Elliott’s complaint seeks compensatory damages, emotional distress damages, punitive damages and attorneys’ fees and costs in unspecified amounts.