In the wake of the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states, as well as opinion polls from the Pew Research Center showing that a higher percentage of the public than ever before are supportive of gay people, being LGBT in the United States in 2019 doesn’t seem nearly as intolerable as it once was. But occasionally, something happens that calls that assumption into question. That was certainly the case when, according to HuffPost, a Catholic archdiocese fired a high school teacher, Joshua Payne-Elliott, for getting married to another man. Payne-Elliott, who was employed at the school for over 10 years before his firing, is suing the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Indiana, for wrongful termination. In response, the school stated that it expects its teachers to be “ministers” who conduct their private lives according to Catholic doctrine, which does not recognize same-sex marriage as being “true marriage.” Last week, the United States Department of Justice issued a statement indicating that it had sided with the archdiocese on the matter, saying that the First Amendment, and by extension, religious freedom, allows for the school to terminate anyone who does not follow Church teaching.
Whether it was legal for the archdiocese to have fired Payne-Elliott and whether it was right are two entirely different questions. In many states in the U.S., there are no laws expressly prohibiting workplaces from firing employees simply because of their sexual orientation, although Indiana does not appear to be one of them. A federal court ruling in 2017, which applied to the state of Indiana, upheld that discrimination based on an employee’s sexual orientation, which includes termination, is prohibited. Since some judges and legal scholars liken discrimination against gay people to be equivalent to discrimination based on sex, the decision made by the archdiocese might have even violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits such discrimination.
Of course one could make the argument that because the teacher worked at a Catholic school, disallowing the termination would constitute a violation of religious freedom. I’m not at all convinced of that. People are free to believe whatever they want, but is it really “religious” to fire a teacher, thereby depriving him or her of income, just because they fell in love with and got married to a person of the same sex? How could a devoted teacher be setting a bad example to the students he teaches just by marrying someone who just happens to have the same sex chromosomes? Furthermore, if the archdiocese is so concerned with the sins and moral failings of its teachers, will it terminate teachers for getting divorced, or taking the Lord’s name in vain? How about using birth control, or even drinking too many beers, because, you know, gluttony? Although I can’t say for sure, I seriously doubt that the very same archdiocese would fire a teacher for most of these offenses, even though, according to the Church, they are actually even more “sinful” than gay marriage.
In fact, some might even say that Payne-Elliott’s marriage to another man wasn’t a sin at all. This is because, although legally binding, the Catholic Church does not recognize same-sex marriages; in other words, as far as the archdiocese is concerned, the marriage never even happened. So if the marriage never happened, then what grounds would they even have for firing him for religious purposes? The fact that he is cohabitating with someone to whom he is not married, and the fact that he is presumably engaging in sexual relations with his partner? The problem is that there is absolutely no way, short of spying on the couple, for anyone to know whether or not they are having sex. It is likely that they are, but no one would be able to prove it. Even if it could be proven, that would mean that any teacher, gay or straight, who is found to be engaging in premarital sex would have to be fired by the archdiocese for the sake of consistency. After all, an employer cannot reasonably terminate one employee for an offense while deciding not to terminate another employee for doing the same thing.
Religious institutions have been known to be inconsistent with their “values” in the past, and I suppose this time is no different. But not all hope is lost. Payne-Elliott’s partner, Layton Payne-Elliott, is also a teacher at a Catholic school. But in his case, the school that he works for refused to fire him despite pressure from the archdiocese. After declining to fire him, Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School was threatened with removal from the archdiocese, though the Vatican recently stepped in to temporarily halt the removal. This just goes to show that Joshua Payne-Elliott’s firing was not inevitable; the school that he taught at could have easily made a different decision, but instead decided to bow to the demands of an archdiocese that is clearly rooted in hypocrisy.