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Trump administration defends a school in Mike Pence’s home state that fired a gay teacher

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The Trump administration is helping a Catholic archdiocese in Mike Pence’s home state that is being sued for firing a gay teacher, arguing that the federal government has “a substantial interest in religious liberty.”

For the past several years, the Archdiocese of Indianapolis has been fighting a war against LGBTQ teachers in its schools. So when Joshua Payne-Elliott, a social studies teacher at Cathedral High school in Indianapolis, married his husband in 2017, the Archbishop ordered the school to fire him.

Related: A Catholic Archdiocese fired a straight woman for supporting LGBTQ equality

Now he’s suing the Archdiocese in state court “alleging it illegally interfered with his contractual and employment relationship” with the school. The Archdiocese tried to get the case dismissed, arguing that it has a First Amendment right to tell a school to fire a teacher, but a judge rejected that plea, saying that the First Amendment only protects the church’s rights to fire people in certain positions, not social studies teachers.

Trump’s Justice Department filed a brief on the Archdiocese’s behalf as they appeal to the Indiana Supreme Court.

“The First Amendment right of expressive association protects the Archdiocese’s right not to associate with Cathedral, whose forced presence within the Archdiocese’s associational umbrella if it continued to employ Payne-Elliott as a teacher would interfere with the Archdiocese’s public expression of Church doctrine regarding marriage,” the brief says.

The brief cites the recent Supreme Court Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru decision, which held that religious schools don’t have to follow state and local laws when hiring and firing teachers if they are “serving an important religious function.”

The Trump administration’s brief says that Payne-Elliott was serving a religious function because the “Archdiocese designates all teachers as responsible for its ministry of training students in the faith.”

Payne-Elliott married a teacher at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School, another Catholic school in Indianapolis. When the Archdiocese found out about their marriage, it ordered both schools to fire both teachers.

Both schools initially refused, but the Archdiocese threatened to force the schools to dissociate from the Catholic Church. Cathedral complied in June 2019, but Brebeuf refused. The Vatican has temporarily suspended the Archdiocese’s decision to cut ties from Brebeuf.

“We hope that this case will put a stop to the targeting of LGBTQ employees and their families,” Payne-Elliot said of his lawsuit. He’s seeking compensatory damages, emotional distress damages, and punitive damages, as well as attorneys’ fees from the Archdiocese for violating his contract.

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