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Department of Justice supports Indianapolis archdiocese for firing teacher over being gay; cites ‘free exercise of religion’

2019-09-29

The Department of Justice filed a statement of interest Friday in support of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, which is being sued for discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

In a press statement, representatives for the DOJ claim that the archdiocese was protected by the First Amendment when it ordered a northeast Indianapolis school to fire a teacher for being gay.

“The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the right of religious institutions and people to decide what their beliefs are, to teach their faith, and to associate with others who share their faith,” Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the civil rights division, said in the statement. “The First Amendment rightly protects the free exercise of religion.”

U.S. Attorney Josh Minkler added that, “If the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses stand for anything, it is that secular courts cannot entangle themselves in questions of religious law."

Dreiband and Minkler are referring to a case involving Joshua Payne-Elliot, a high school teacher who had worked at Cathedral High School for 13 years, before his contract was terminated earlier this year.

A month after his teaching contract was renewed on May 21, the school’s president told Payne-Elliot that the archdiocese had ordered the school to fire him — simply because he was married to another man.

He filed a lawsuit against the archdiocese for “illegally interfered with his contractual and employment relationship with Cathedral High School, causing Cathedral to terminate him on June 23, 2019,” his lawyer told the South Bend Tribune at the time.

“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,” the DOJ statement explains.

In order words, the archdiocese wouldn’t be able to employ a teacher in a same-sex marriage and at the same time identify as Catholic.

“First Amendment protects the Archdiocese’s right to this form of expressive association, and courts cannot interfere with that right,” the statement continues; adding that courts can’t “second-guess how religious institutions interpret and apply their own religious laws.”

In the 18-page-long statement of interest, DOJ representatives are emphatic. “First Amendment demands that this lawsuit be dismissed” because it forbids the court “from interfering with the Archdiocese’s right to expressive association, and from second-guessing the Archdiocese’s interpretation and application of Catholic law,” the statement reads.

DOJ files statements of interest when it wants to make a point - not because it has to. That's what Trump admin did here. It is once again using religion as a shield against core anti-discrimination principles that protect LGBTQ people. Can't imagine career lawyers are happy. https://t.co/9i0npK0l3s

Vanita Gupta, former head of the department’s Civil Rights Division, wrote on Twitter that the Trump administration is “once again using religion as a shield against core anti-discrimination principles that protect LGBTQ people.”

The DOJ doesn’t have to file statements of interest, noted Gupta, an Obama appointee who worked for the department from 2014 to 2017. It does it “when it wants to make a point,” she added. “That’s what Trump admin did here.”