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Indianapolis Catholic school should be able to fire gay teacher, Trump admin says

At least three gay employees have been terminated by Catholic schools affiliated with the Archdiocese of Indianapolis since 2018.

The Trump administration is siding with religious leaders who ordered a Catholic school in Indiana to fire a teacher in a same-sex marriage, saying the church’s actions are protected by the First Amendment.

Joshua Payne-Elliott, right, with his husband Layton Payne-Elliott.Courtesy Kathleen A. DeLaney

In a 35-page amicus brief filed on Tuesday, the Department of Justice argued that the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis — which fired gay high school teacher Joshua Payne-Elliott last year — is, like other religious employers in the U.S., “entitled to employ in key roles only persons whose beliefs and conduct are consistent” with its “religious precepts.” In addition, the brief states, the “Constitution bars the government from interfering with the autonomy of religious organizations.”

Part of the DOJ’s argument relies on the “ministerial exception,” a constitutional protection for religious institutions to prevent government interference in the hiring and firing of “ministerial” employees. What constitutes a “ministerial” employee, however, is a point of contention.

The government’s brief argues that Payne-Elliott, a world language and social studies teacher at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis, fits into this category, stating that he has “the responsibility of educating and forming students in the faith” and continuing to employ him would “interfere with the Archdiocese’s public expression of Church doctrine regarding marriage.” The DOJ made a similar argument last year via a “statement of interest” in the case.

An ultimatum

Payne-Elliott’s battle with the Archdiocese of Indianapolis started last spring, two years after he married Layton Payne-Elliott, who teaches at a different Catholic high school in Indianapolis.

In a directive sent to Cathedral High School, where Joshua worked, and Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School, Layton’s employer, the archdiocese issued an ultimatum: fire both men or lose your recognition as a Catholic institution. Cathedral chose to fire Joshua Payne-Elliott, while Brebeuf refused to fire Layton Payne-Elliott.

After his termination from Cathedral, where he worked for 13 years, Payne-Elliott filed a discrimination complaint against the archdiocese with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last June and sued the church a month later, alleging that his firing caused “emotional distress” and damaged his reputation.

Payne-Elliott is not the only former Catholic school employee engaged in a legal battle with the Archdiocese of Indianapolis over LGBTQ issues.

Two former guidance counselors at Roncalli High School sued the archdiocese and their former employer for discrimination after they were terminated. Lynn Starkey, a married lesbian who worked at the school for nearly 40 years, filed suit last July, while her colleague Shelly Fitzgerald, a married lesbian who worked at Roncalli for 15 years, did so a few months alter.

A third former Roncalli High School employer, Kelley Fischer, a heterosexual social worker, filed a separate suit against the archdiocese and the school claiming she was fired for publicly supporting Starkey and Fitzgerald.

Religious freedom or discrimination?

The administration has prioritized “religious liberty” since President Donald Trump took office in 2017. One way it has done so is through legal briefs, like the one filed Tuesday, and in many instances, such briefs put the administration at odds with LGBTQ advocates.

For example, the Justice Department has argued in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding and against gay and transgender employees being covered by federal civil rights law.

A report released in May by the American Civil Liberties Union, the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress and the LGBTQ think tank Movement Advancement Project concluded that the administration's expansion of religious exemptions are gutting civil rights protections — particularly for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Americans.

"The administration is taking the position that religious freedoms give you a right to discriminate,” Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the ACLU, told NBC News shortly after the report’s release.

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