The U.S. Department of Justice is defending a Roman Catholic archbishop’s decision that led to the firing of a gay, married teacher ― arguing that the First Amendment bars courts from interfering in how a religious group applies its teachings.
The Justice Department’s civil rights division filed a statement of interest on Friday in a lawsuit brought by Joshua Payne-Elliott, an educator fired in June from his job at Cathedral High School, which is part of the Indianapolis archdiocese.
Payne-Elliott claims the archdiocese illegally interfered in his employment contract with Cathedral by demanding that the school fire him. The school was supportive of the teacher but faced serious repercussions ― including losing its nonprofit status, its diocesan priests and its ability to offer the Eucharist, a key Christian rite ― if it disobeyed Archbishop Charles Thompson’s mandate.
In its statement of interest, the Justice Department said that the First Amendment protects the archdiocese’s right to “interpret and apply Catholic doctrine.” The department sided with the archdiocese and requested that Payne-Elliott’s case be dismissed.
“The United States has no reason on this record to doubt that Plaintiff was an excellent teacher,” the statement reads. But the government can “cast no judgment on whether the Archdiocese’s decision is right and proper as a matter of Catholic doctrine or religious faith.”
“If the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses stand for anything, it is that secular courts cannot entangle themselves in questions of religious law,” U.S. Attorney Josh Minkler said in a press statement.
Kathleen DeLaney, Payne-Elliott’s attorney, said the case isn’t about Catholic doctrine, but rather the archdiocese’s interference in a business contract.
Payne-Elliott worked as a social studies and world language teacher from August 2006 to June 2019, according to his lawsuit. Cathedral had offered this past May to renew his teaching contract for the next school year. But in June, the school told him it was terminating his employment “at the direction of the Archdiocese.”
“My client was employed pursuant to a written contract by Cathedral High School,” DeLaney told HuffPost in an email. “The Archdiocese ― which was not his employer ― got him fired.”
Payne-Elliott’s husband works at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis. That school was temporarily kicked out of the archdiocese for refusing to meet Thompson’s demands that it fire him. But the Vatican earlier this week suspended the ouster, pending its consideration of an appeal of the move.
The Indianapolis archdiocese has said that it sees Catholic school teachers as “ministers” who are required to uphold church teachings, which prohibit same-sex marriages.
DeLaney said it was “highly unusual” for the Justice Department to get involved in the early stages of a single plaintiff case pending in state court with claims arising only under state law.
President Donald Trump has made protecting the religious liberties of his conservative Christian base a priority since taking office. He issued an executive order in May 2017 asking the attorney general’s office to create guidelines for all federal agencies on how to protect religious liberty while interpreting federal law. Those guidelines are mentioned in the Justice Department’s statement of interest in Payne-Elliott’s case to help explain why the federal government has a stake in this debate.
Vanita Gupta, who headed the DOJ’s civil rights division during President Barack Obama’s administration, wrote on Twitter that the department files statements of interest when it wants to make a point.
″[The Trump administration] is once again using religion as a shield against core anti-discrimination principles that protect LGBTQ people,” Gupta wrote.
Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, tweeted that the DOJ is using statements of interest to “aggressively promote an anti-civil rights agenda.”
Read the U.S. Department of Justice’s statement of interest below.