On September 8, the Trump administration’s Justice Department filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Indiana Supreme Court arguing that the Roman Catholic Archdiocese has 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.
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.