One high school fired a gay teacher. Another school protected one. They are married to each other

Arika Herron
Joshua Payne-Elliott alleges in lawsuit that archdiocese interfered with his contractual and employment relationship with his school.

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Joshua Payne-Elliott, the teacher fired from Cathedral High School because of his same-sex marriage, is suing the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

Until now, Payne-Elliott had not been identified publicly. His husband, Layton Payne-Elliott, is a teacher at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School. They married in 2017. The couple have been at the center of a fight between their schools and the Catholic Church, which directed the schools to fire both men. 

Brebeuf refused to fire Layton Payne-Elliott, so the archdiocese stripped the school of its Catholic status. Cathedral fired Joshua Payne-Elliott to avoid the same fate. 

A lawsuit filed Wednesday alleges that the archdiocese illegally interfered with Joshua Payne-Elliott's contractual and employment relationship with Cathedral High School, causing Cathedral to terminate him.

“We hope that this case will put a stop to the targeting of LGBTQ employees and their families," Payne-Elliott said in a news release.

Joshua Payne-Elliot (right), pictured with his husband Layton Payne-Elliott, is suing the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson has said in recent weeks that the church is not targeting LGBTQ employees.

The archdiocese said Wednesday it has a right to determine appropriate conduct for employees. 

"Religious liberty, which is a hallmark of the U.S. Constitution and has been tested in the U.S. Supreme Court, acknowledges that 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," the archdiocese said.

According to the lawsuit, Cathedral renewed Joshua Payne-Elliott's annual teaching contract in May. That contract did not include the morality clause that a same-sex marriage would violate.

The archdiocese has said that, two years ago, it began requiring all Catholic schools under its purview, including independent schools like Cathedral and Brebeuf, to include a requirement to uphold the teachings of the church in employment contracts.

Lawsuit: Cathedral president said firing happened 'with a gun to our head'

According to the lawsuit, one month after Payne-Elliott's contract was renewed Cathedral’s president, Robert Bridges, told him that the archdiocese had “directed” Cathedral to terminate him and that Cathedral was following that directive.

Bridges told Payne-Elliott that it felt like Cathedral was firing Payne-Elliott "with a gun to our head," according to the lawsuit.

Payne-Elliott had worked as a world language and social studies teacher at Cathedral since 2006. According to the filing, Bridges told Payne-Elliott that his termination had nothing to do with his performance and acknowledged that he was a "very good teacher."

Payne-Elliott was chaperoning a school trip when the news broke that Brebeuf would be splitting with the archdiocese over his husband's employment. Layton Payne-Elliott is a math teacher at Brebeuf and an alum of the school, according to the school's staff directory.

Joshua Payne-Elliott returned the next day and was fired two days later. It was that afternoon that Cathedral announced its decision to fire him, though Payne-Elliott wasn't named at the time.

Previously: An Indiana Catholic school fired a gay teacher for same-sex marriage. Now, a settlement

Identity: To save its 'Catholic identity,' Indianapolis' Cathedral High School is firing a gay teacher

Cathedral and Payne-Elliott announced Tuesday that they had reached a confidential settlement, resolving all legal issues between them. The archdiocese was not part of that settlement.

His complaint against the archdiocese seeks compensatory damages, emotional distress damages, liquidated and/or punitive damages and attorneys’ fees and costs in unspecified amounts.

Payne-Elliott has also filed charges of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, asserting that the archdiocese discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation and retaliated against him for opposing sexual orientation discrimination.

Issue erupted locally two years ago

Cathedral and Brebeuf are not the first Catholic schools in Indianapolis to grapple with employees in same-sex marriages.

The issue first erupted last year when a gay guidance counselor at Roncalli High School was placed on administrative leave because of her marriage to another woman. Shelly Fitzgerald and another gay guidance counselor, Lynn Starkey, were eventually let go from Roncalli. Starkey is also in a same-sex marriage.

Fitzgerald and Starkey have filed complaints with the EEOC against the archdiocese similar to Payne-Elliott's.

As criticism of the church's handling of gay, married teachers mounted in the days after the news from Brebeuf and Cathedral broke, Archbishop Thompson said the church was not on a "witch hunt" for gay employees among its ranks.

"It is my responsibility as archbishop to oversee Catholic identity throughout the archdiocese," Thompson said in a news conference several weeks ago.

Thompson also said that being gay is not the issue. While someone's sexual orientation is not a sin, he said, the church does teach that marriage is between one man and one woman.

Officials with the archdiocese and Cathedral have said they were in talks about Payne-Elliott's employment and marriage status for nearly two years. 

A spokesperson for Cathedral has said officials there were sad about the situation but felt they had no choice in order to retain their school's Catholic identity. In a statement released Tuesday, the school thanked its former teacher for his "years of service, contributions, and achievements."

"For its part, Cathedral intends to remain Catholic, while respectfully facilitating discernment among the Archdiocese, the Catholic community and the Cathedral Family on this issue," the statement reads. 

Follow Arika Herron on Twitter: @ArikaHerron.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: One high school fired a gay teacher. Another school protected one. They are married to each other