Rule of Law

Religious Liberty: Trump DOJ Defends Catholic School in State Court

Unlike Eric Holder’s Justice Department, the Trump administration is on the forefront of defending First Amendment religious liberty. This Tuesday, Justice Department Civil Rights Division lawyers will be appearing in an Indiana state court to defend the religious freedom of Catholic schools.

Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband’s team will personally appear to defend the Archdiocese of Indianapolis against an employment discrimination lawsuit brought by a teacher who was fired for openly flouting Catholic Church teaching on marriage.

Joshua Payne-Elliott, the former teacher at Cathedral High School and plaintiff, is suing because he was terminated from his employment as a high school teacher after openly defying church teaching on marriage and living as a married couple with another man.

When Payne-Elliott refused to modify his open opposition to Catholic teaching, he was fired from his teaching job at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis.

Unambiguous Catholic teaching says marriage is solely between one man and one woman.

The First Amendment protects the free exercise of religious beliefs. Churches have the First Amendment right to ensure that employees teaching children in church schools are espousing church theology and that the public portion of their lives that manifest in the classroom are in keeping with that theology. That is the essence of religious liberty.

Justice Department lawyers will argue that federal constitutional rights are directly implicated by any state employment discrimination lawsuit brought by a plaintiff who was fired for openly opposing and undermining church teaching to students.

The Trump administration is coming to the defense of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis in stark contrast to the approach toward religious liberty of the Obama administration.

“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,” said Dreiband. “The First Amendment rightly protects the free exercise of religion.”

The Obama administration staked out court arguments that were so hostile to religious liberty and so radical that the Supreme Court rejected them 9-0. I wrote about this eight years ago (See “Obama’s Quiet Court Attack on Religious Freedom.”)

Radical lawyers in Eric Holder’s Justice Department, like now-California Supreme Court Justice Leondra R. Kruger and current Health and Human Services Department lawyer (in the Trump Administration) Aaron D. Schuham, argued that a church should not be able to fire church employees who violate church teaching.

In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church v. EEOC, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected Holder, Kruger, and Schuham’s arguments. Not one Justice agreed with the Holder Justice Department’s radical attack on religious liberty. The Becket fund called it the “most important religious liberty case in half a century.”

Now Trump’s Civil Rights Division is making up for past wrongs and defending religious liberty. Lawyers will keenly appreciate that Justice Department lawyers are appearing in state court. The extraordinary step is commensurate with the extraordinary attack on the religious liberty of Catholics.

It turns out some church institutions don’t have the fortitude to defend their theology. Brebeuf High School in Indianapolis, a Jesuit high school, is one such place.

Joshua Payne-Elliott’s partner, Layton Payne-Elliott, is also a high school teacher. He teaches at a Brebeuf High School. The Archdiocese of Indianapolis instructed Brebeuf to disallow a teacher at a Catholic high school within the archdiocese to openly disregard Catholic teaching. When the Jesuits refused to do so, the archdiocese terminated all relationships with the school.

Marion Superior Court Special Judge Stephen Heimann will hear oral arguments Tuesday on the archdiocese’s motion to dismiss.