- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 22, 2019

A teacher who was fired from a Catholic school in Indiana after he married another man was surprised to learn the federal government has sided against him in his private civil lawsuit in state court, saying it appears the Trump administration is trying to “politicize” his legal battle.

Joshua Payne-Elliott taught world language and social studies at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis for more than a decade, but in 2017 after he married his partner the school eventually fired from his job — though, the termination came two years after the civil ceremony.

His school was told by the Archdiocese of Indianapolis it either had to fire Mr. Payne-Elliott for publicly violating the church’s teachings on sexuality and the definition of marriage, or the school would lose its Catholic affiliation.

Mr. Payne-Elliott responded by filing a lawsuit in July, suing the archdiocese for interfering with his employment contract, arguing he had been told — even during his termination — he was “a very good teacher.”

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis has tried to dismiss the case, arguing its decisions are protected by the First Amendment and the Trump administration agreed, filing a statement of interest last month in the case making much the same argument.

“I was surprised and disappointed to learn of the U.S. Government’s interest in my case. Despite its attempt to politicize this legal dispute, I am confident that I will be given a fair opportunity to present my claims in court and look forward to doing so,” Mr. Payne-Elliott told The Washington Times.

Christopher Stake, an attorney representing Mr. Payne-Elliott, called the Justice Department’s involvement an overreach.

“On a personal level, I can only assume it can’t feel good to be a member of the LGBTQ community and have the federal government take sides against you in private civil litigation,” he said.

The Trump Justice Department, though, argued these types of actions must be barred by the First Amendment, saying it’s not up to the courts to second guess a religious institution’s interpretation of its doctrine.

“The Archdiocese’s position on marriage is, of course, not universally held. But ‘it is not the role of the courts to reject a group’s expressed values because they disagree with those values,’” the Justice Department’s brief argued.

The archdiocese, meanwhile, said it should be able to employ teachers who live out the Catholic faith “by word and action.”

“If the First Amendment means anything, it means the government can’t punish the Catholic Church for saying who is Catholic,” said Luke Goodrich, senior counsel at Becket — Religious Liberty for All, which is representing the archdiocese.

“This lawsuit fails on so many levels; we’re glad to see the Department of Justice weighing in,” he added.

Robert Tuttle, a law professor at George Washington University, said the archdiocese will likely prevail.

“It’s significant that DOJ is apparently making it a priority to push this understanding of religion as not necessarily about the content of one’s faith but about the way faith translates into practices. And that means religious schools are free to select teachers not just based on the content of their faith, but on whether the conduct conforms to the content of the faith of the school,” he said.

Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia, said teachers with secular subjects, as Mr. Payne-Elliott did, have typically fared better in court against the schools and churches. He noted, though, the conflict is an important religious liberty issue.

“The Catholic Church should not be required to employ teachers that publicly flout church teachings,” Mr. Laycock said.

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