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Justice Department Files Friend-of-The-Court Brief in Indiana Supreme Court Supporting Catholic Archdiocese’s First Amendment Rights in Former High School Teacher’s Lawsuit

Gerald Scroop

September 8, 2020

The Justice Department today filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Indiana Supreme Court explaining that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives the Roman Catholic Archdiocese the right to decide for itself who should personify its beliefs, inculcate its teachings, and instruct students at religious high schools affiliated with the Archdiocese. In its brief, the United States explains that three separate aspects of the First Amendment prevent a former Catholic high school teacher from suing the Archdiocese over his termination:  the church-autonomy doctrine, the Archdiocese’s right to expressive association, and the ministerial exception — a doctrine recently reaffirmed and clarified by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 7-2 decision two months ago in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru.

In September 2019, the United States filed a statement of interest in Indiana state trial court arguing that the First Amendment required this lawsuit to be dismissed. The trial court, in May 2020, declined to dismiss the case, instead ordering discovery into Catholic doctrine and its application and into whether the Archbishop is the highest ecclesiastical authority on the matters at issue.  The Archdiocese is now asking the Indiana Supreme Court to intervene and dismiss the case.

“Our ancestors arrived on our shores to establish a country where the people would be secure to practice their faiths and to gather freely with their religious communities. To that end, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the right of religious institutions and people to decide what their beliefs are, to associate with others who share their beliefs, and to determine who will teach the faithful in their religious schools,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division. “Let there be no doubt:  the Department of Justice will continue to defend the First Amendment rights to believe, worship and associate in a manner that respects the dignity and choice of all individuals.”

“There is no more fundamental constitutional principle on the proper relationship between church and state than that the government must leave religious decisions to religious organizations,” said U.S. Attorney Josh Minkler for the Southern District of Indiana.   

This case stems from a directive issued by the Archdiocese to Cathedral High School, a Catholic school in Indianapolis. The Archdiocese told Cathedral that the school’s continued employment of a teacher in a public, same-sex marriage in contradiction to Catholic teachings on marriage would result in Cathedral’s forfeiture of its Catholic identity. After much deliberation, the school terminated the teacher. The teacher then filed suit against the Archdiocese, claiming the directive to Cathedral interfered with his employment and his contractual relationship with the school.  

The United States explains in its brief that the First Amendment prevents courts from impairing the constitutional rights of religious institutions. The former teacher’s lawsuit attempts to penalize the Archbishop for determining that schools within the Archdiocese cannot employ teachers in public, same-sex marriages, and simultaneously identify as Catholic. U.S. Supreme Court precedent makes clear that the First Amendment protects the Archdiocese’s right to this form of expressive association, just as it protects a wide array of non-religious expressive association from membership in the NAACP to the Boy Scouts, and courts cannot interfere with that right.

The brief also makes clear that, under the church-autonomy doctrine, courts cannot second-guess how religious institutions interpret and apply their own religious laws. U.S. Supreme Court precedent has long held that the “First Amendment requires civil courts to refrain from interfering in matters of church discipline, faith, practice and religious law.”

Additionally, as the brief explains, the ministerial exception grounded in the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment and elaborated on by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Our Lady of Guadalupe School, shields from judicial review the Archdiocese’s direction to Cathedral (or else lose its Catholic affiliation) to terminate the employment of a high-school teacher such as Payne-Elliott, who has an important role in fulfilling the Church’s mission to pass on its faith to the next generation.

The United States takes no position on the other issues raised by the Archdiocese on appeal.

In July 2018, the Department of Justice announced the formation of the Religious Liberty Task Force. The Task Force brings together Department components to coordinate their work on religious liberty litigation and policy, and to implement the Attorney General’s 2017 Religious Liberty Guidance.

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