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Trump, DOJ Push for Ruling Allowing Catholic Schools to Fire Gays

Layton and Joshua Payne-Elliott
From left: Layton and Joshua Payne-Elliott

Trump's Justice Department says the Archdiocese of Indianapolis was within its constitutional rights to order a gay teacher's termination.

The U.S. Department of Justice says it's perfectly OK for Catholic schools to fire LGBTQ teachers.

The DOJ Friday issued what's called a "Statement of Interest" in the case of Joshua Payne-Elliott, who's suing the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis over his firing from Cathedral High School, The Indianapolis Star reports.

The archdiocese was within its First Amendment rights to order the school terminate the teacher, according to the DOJ.

"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 DOJ's Civil Rights Division, said in a press release. "The First Amendment rightly protects the free exercise of religion."

"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 added.

Payne-Elliott was fired from Cathedral High School in June because he is in a same-sex marriage. The archdiocese said the school, which is under the archdiocese's supervision but is run independently, had to let him go or else lose its right to call itself a Catholic institution. His husband, Layton Payne-Elliott, teaches at another private school in Indianapolis, Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School, which the archdiocese stripped of its Catholic identity because it refused to fire teachers in same-sex unions. School officials said at the time that the dispute centered on one teacher but did not identify the person. The Vatican recently put that ruling on hold while the school appeals, the Star reports.

Joshua Payne-Elliott sued the archdiocese in Marion County Superior Court in July. He and his lawyers say the case is not about religious freedom but is instead an employment dispute. In the past few years, the archdiocese began requiring so-called morality clauses in employment contracts at the schools within its purview, but Payne-Elliott says he never signed a contract with that clause, according to the Star.

"Josh Payne-Elliot was employed by Cathedral High School," his attorney, Kathleen DeLaney, told the paper. "Cathedral High School fired my client because the archdiocese told them to and threatened to take various actions against Cathedral if they refused to fire my client. That is textbook intentional interference in an employment relationship. He was not employed by the archdiocese, but the archdiocese had him fired."

She said the Statement of Interest, which is simply an opinion that the court can take into consideration as it hears the suit, shows that Donald Trump's administration "is politicizing a legal dispute about an Indiana business tort." It is "highly unusual" for the federal government to become involved in a case at this level, she said.

The Justice Department has also argued for the right to discriminate in briefs filed in cases the Supreme Court will hear October 8 over the firing of gay and transgender workers. The DOJ says in those briefs that the ban on sex discrimination in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not apply to discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

At least two other staff members in Indianapolis Catholic schools have been fired in the past few years because of their same-sex relationships. Roncalli High School placed guidance counselor Shelly Fitzgerald on administrative leave last year after officials learned she was married to a woman, and recently told another counselor, Lynn Starkey, that her contract will not be renewed for the 2019-2020 school year, also because of her same-sex marriage. Both women have filed discrimination complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, while Starkey has also filed a lawsuit in federal court and Fitzgerald is expected to do so, the Star reports.

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