A judge will soon decide whether the Catholic Church’s First Amendment religious rights protects it from a lawsuit filed by a fired Cathedral High School teacher who is gay.
Joshua Payne-Elliott was fired in June for being in a same-sex marriage, something the archdiocese says violates church doctrine. The school had the option of firing Payne-Elliott or being stripped by the archdiocese of its Catholic status. Cathedral chose to dismiss the teacher, who had been with the school since 2006 as a world language and social studies teacher.
Payne-Elliott in July sued the archdiocese, stating that he has suffered lost wages, lost employer-provided benefits and endured emotional distress and damage to his reputation.
The archdiocese filed a motion this week to dismiss Payne-Elliott’s lawsuit, citing First Amendment protections and jurisdictional issues. Jay Mercer, attorney for the archdiocese, said he’s confident a judge will rule in the archdiocese’s favor.
While a constitutional law expert who spoke to IndyStar didn’t rule out the chance that the archdiocese’s motion to dismiss will prevail, he said it would be more complicated than it appears.
What the attorneys say
Mercer said the archdiocese is governed by Catholic canon law and that the archbishop is tasked with ensuring Catholic teachers abide by church doctrine. The archbishop’s right to do so without court interference is enshrined in the First Amendment, Mercer said.
“The court would be substituting its judgment for the archbishop, which it could not do because the court cannot put itself as the leader of the Catholic church,” Mercer said Thursday. “It would be inappropriate for a court to say it (the archdiocese) doesn’t have this authority. It would be violating the Constitution.”
The archdiocese’s motion asks the court to dismiss the case on grounds that it isn’t constitutionally allowed to interfere with church governance. The 20-page document cites a slew of case histories and rulings to support its argument.
Payne-Elliott’s attorney, Kathleen DeLaney, said archdioceses get sued all the time, making it clear that they can fall under court jurisdiction.
“I think they’re really overreaching,” DeLaney said of the archdiocese’s motion.
DeLaney argues that a court can hear and decide her client’s lawsuit without making a judgment about church doctrine. The case is really about the archdiocese interfering with a separate entity, Cathedral High School, to force Payne-Elliott’s termination without justification, DeLaney said.
In the archdiocese’s motion, Mercer says the plaintiff fails to show there wasn’t justification for the archdiocese’s involvement that led to Payne-Elliott’s firing. When asked by phone about alleged improper interference, Mercer said the merits of that allegation won’t even make it to court.
“The merits of this case will never be litigated because the court has no authority,” he said.
For years, Jim Hammill searched for a church where he could worship in the Catholic tradition that he loved. He grew up attending a Roman Catholic Church, but felt ostracized after his divorce and remarriage to a woman in a Lutheran Church.
The Catholic Church does not recognize civil divorce and Hammill did not seek a Catholic Church annulment, a declaration by a church court that a marriage was never valid according to church law.
The Caldwell resident spent the better part of his adulthood considering himself a lapsed Catholic.
“I was convinced I was going to hell,” he said.
Then, about five years ago, he stumbled into St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Glen Ridge and he immediately felt the sense of belonging that he had craved.
The church is part of the American National Catholic Church, an independent religious movement established in 2009 by former Catholics who sought a more inclusive experience.
Like other breakaway Catholic-style churches across the nation, the ANCC is not recognized by the Vatican as a part of the Roman Catholic Church.
The movement has 11 branches around the country, including Kearny and Long Branch, New Jersey, as well as in New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Connecticut. ANCC leaders say more are on the way.
Nationwide, the ANCC has over 2,000 members. It is headed by Bishop George Lucey, who is also the pastor of the St. Francis of Assisi parish.The ANCC ordains its own priests and bishops.
The Church in Glen Ridge draws anywhere from 50 to 100 worshipers to its regular Sunday Mass.
Many of the group’s fundamental beliefs and rituals are similar to those of Roman Catholicism, yet it offers a more progressive approach that is in sharp contrast to Rome. For one thing, women can be ordained, priests can marry, and openly gay priests and LGBT worshipers are welcomed. There is full sacramental participation by all, and reproductive choice is supported.
“I immediately felt like this is what Catholicism was meant to be,” said Hammill. “It’s nonjudgmental. It’s welcoming. There are a lot of diverse people — we have people of different races and different sexual orientations, which is refreshing.”
“I grew up believing that you go to Mass on Sunday because if you don’t, it’s a mortal sin. Now I go because I really want to,” said Hammill, who recently began studying in a seminary.
Hammill’s refrain has become increasingly familiar to the church’s associate pastor, Father Geety Reyes.
“A lot of people come to us because they are dissatisfied with the Catholic Church, for a variety of reasons,” said Reyes. He added that many have recently left the church over its handling of the abuse scandals.
“We are an all-embracing parish and we welcome everyone regardless of who they are and regardless of their journey in life,” Reyes said. “We make the sacraments available to everyone.”
Reyes, who is openly gay, noted that in the early years of the church, most of its members were Catholics from the LGBT community, but now the church is drawing worshipers from traditional families and of all backgrounds, including non-Catholics.
The most famous breakaway movement in Christian history was the Reformation over 500 years ago, which gave rise to the Protestant churches. That break was as a result of theological differences. Protestants allow their clerics to marry and have children.
Another breakaway, the Anglican Church that includes America’s Episcopalian Church, grew out of King Henry VIII’s dispute with the pope over his divorces.
These days, though, dissatisfied Catholics are more likely to fade away from religious life — perhaps attending midnight Mass on Christmas and celebrating Easter in some way — than to join another church or start one.
The Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study found that the percentage of Americans identifying as Catholic had fallen from 23.9 percent in 2007 to 20.9 percent (51 million) in 2014
The study found that 41 percent of all respondents who were raised Catholic no longer identified with Catholicism — and that 12.9 percent of all Americans were former Catholics.
A 2015 Pew survey also found that majorities of American Catholics wanted to see the church undertake some major changes, such as allowing priests to marry (62 percent) and women to be ordained as priests (59 percent). Almost half of respondents (46 percent) supported recognition of LGBT marriages.
For some disenfranchised Catholics, the answer has to been to break with the Vatican and join Catholic-style independent churches. These splinter groups generally utilize the Catholic liturgy and rituals, even if they reject the “magisterium” — the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church, as dispensed by the pope and bishops.
Pat Brannigan, the executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, which represents the bishops of the state, admitted that it can be a challenge to follow the teachings of Catholicism. “Even in the time of Jesus, some of his disciplines had difficulty accepting his teachings and turned away,” he said. “Why should we be surprised that some still turn away?”
He said he was not familiar with the ANCC but asserted that it is not considered part of the Roman Catholic Church.
Alison Shapiro, a middle school teacher from Bloomfield, grew up Catholic but “was not a big fan of the Catholic dogma,” she said. She immediately realized that St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church was different.
“It was exactly like a normal Mass, but without all the negative social stuff I didn’t agree with,” she said.
She became active in the church and is now the parish council president. A big part of its appeal, she said, is that it welcomes everyone. “You just come how you are comfortable and you are just accepted,” she said.
Like many of his parishioners, Reyes was brought up in the Roman Catholic Church but felt he couldn’t remain there because of his gay identity. The ANCC accepted him for who he was and allowed him to worship in the Catholic tradition, he said.
The 43-year-old Bloomfield resident was ordained as a deacon by the ANCC in 2012 and, several years later, as a priest.
“I never felt like I left the Catholic Church — I didn’t change anything I believed,” he said.
Activists wanted revolution. They got rainbow Nikes.
By Diane Winston
Pride Month has gone mainstream. Taylor Swift released a new LGBTQ anthem, and companies from Macy’s to Doc Martens have turned pride into a marketing tool.
This widespread acceptance is a far cry from the gay liberation movement that once championed an alternative lifestyle and a culture all its own. Merging into the mainstream wasn’t always a central goal for the movement, particularly after the Stonewall riots, a pivotal moment in gay history that took place 50 years ago this month.
How did a culture and identity once defined by its marginalization — the criminalization of same-sex relationships, the classification of homosexuality as a mental illness — turn into a fashion statement?
Ironically, the religious right, the news media and the AIDS crisis helped this happen. As journalists spotlighted the movement and its victories throughout the 1970s, conservative Christians feared the “homosexual agenda” was gaining traction. But when HIV/AIDS, an illness that initially appeared to strike only gay men, became a news story, evangelical leaders claimed it was God’s punishment for immorality. Reporters repeated this frame, and subsequent stories explored whether bathhouses and non-monogamous relationships had fueled the epidemic.
By the mid-1980s, the gay liberation movement had pivoted, embracing mainstream institutions and fighting for the same rights as heterosexuals. Their victories spurred many Americans to reevaluate their ideas about gender roles and same-sex relationships. But greater acceptance of the LGBTQ community came at the expense of Stonewall’s animating vision: the freedom to be and to live how one wanted.
That freedom made headlines in the decade after Stonewall. Journalists profiled a community with its own music, mores and fashion, as well as an uninhibited sex scene. They depicted a burgeoning culture, one that called into question conventional norms such as monogamy and marriage. Reporters also covered the victories of gay rights activists, who persuaded the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its diagnostic manual and voters to support local anti-discrimination ordinances.
But even as mainstream acceptance grew, a backlash was brewing. In 1977, entertainer Anita Bryant mobilized the Save Our Children Campaign, encouraging church folks in Dade County, Fla., to support the repeal of a Miami ordinance that prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation. To the surprise of many, Bryant succeeded.
The Rev. Jerry Falwell, a popular television and radio preacher, was among her backers. In 1979, encouraged by Beltway Republicans, Falwell launched Moral Majority, a grass-roots political organization for religious conservatives. This new voting bloc supported traditional family structures — nuclear families with a male breadwinner and a stay-at-home mother — and denounced feminists, abortion rights supporters and people in the LGBTQ community.
Their first goal was to elect Ronald Reagan to the presidency, and after he won, Falwell attributed Reagan’s 1980 victory to Moral Majority support.
Falwell’s rise would be pivotal for the LGBTQ community because of another story in the news: Physicians had identified a mysterious virus that seemed to target gay men. Initially, news outlets reported sporadically on the virus, assuming most readers weren’t interested. But by early 1983, AIDS coverage exploded.
Physicians still did not know how it spread, but there was growing agreement that blood was a carrier and speculation that casual contact could cause infection. AIDS was no longer a “gay plague,” as the media initially called it. Using words that stoked alarm among the “general population” — the catchall term news outlets used for heterosexual Americans — journalists reported that AIDS was incurable and often fatal.
The medical news moved the subject onto the front pages, as journalists began reporting on the disease’s human toll. One New York Times article described the disease’s “emotional anguish.” The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, a well-known liberal minister, said he counseled “AIDS victims” who “felt that this was in some way God’s punishment.” He assured them that “being gay was not a sin.”
Coverage such as this highlighted the moral dimension of the epidemic, and religious conservatives saw an opportunity.
During a Fourth of July “I Love America” rally, Falwell declared that AIDS was “God’s way of ‘spanking’ us,” adding that even if most Americans were “innocent” of sodomy, heterosexuals who countenanced homosexuality were rebelling against God.
Falwell quickly became a go-to guy for HIV/AIDS stories. For reporters looking to balance stories about the moral dimension of AIDS, Falwell offered everything they could want. Waving a Bible and citing scripture, he seemed the embodiment of religious orthodoxy to secular journalists who knew little about Christianity. He also had colorful quotes, an army of Christian soldiers and the ear of the president. Best of all, he was always ready to talk.
Before long, the televangelist’s message influenced how reporters framed HIV/AIDS. One Newsweek story around that time explored how the virus ended “a decade of carefree sexual adventure.” The article’s subheads included “Punishment,” “Hostility” and “Backlash” — all Falwellian themes — and the text repeatedly quoted the minister. The piece also noted that after 743 deaths and 1,922 “victims,” some gay rights activists were questioning the movement’s valorization of sexual freedom.
Most gay leaders quoted in the article mentioned a “new sobriety.” The language of the piece and its sources presumed that monogamy was preferable to “excess,” “sobriety” and “flamboyance,” and middle-class values to “hedonism.” The story also suggested that commitments to work and family could bridge the differences between “us” and “them.” Good gay people, like straight people, accepted monogamy and capitalism, it said, while bad gay people lived bohemian lifestyles, indulged in casual sex and died. AIDS coverage policed the possible: a win for conservatives, because it shifted the midpoint of American political life rightward.
By stigmatizing the alternative gay culture and promoting normative institutions and practices, this coverage unwittingly helped shift the focus of the gay liberation movement to civil rights — an area in which they had more hope for success. Many stopped challenging mainstream ideas and institutions — from marriage and religion to gender and bodily autonomy — and started fighting for the same privileges as heterosexuals, including the right to marry, serve in the military, adopt children and be free from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodation. Their successes have frustrated religious conservatives who are still contesting the “homosexual agendaTarget. But it came at a cost. Protesters at Stonewall fought for the freedom to be who they were and to live how they wanted. They wanted a revolution; they got rainbow Nikes.
If Catholic bishops hope to reclaim their moral credibility after revelations about covering up clergy sexual abuse, the hierarchy might start by sending a simple but potent message: Church leaders should take a year of abstinence from preaching about sex and gender.
It might seem obvious that a church facing a crisis of legitimacy caused by clergy raping children would show more humility when claiming to hold ultimate truths about human sexuality
Instead, in the past month alone, a Rhode Island bishop tweeted that Catholics shouldn’t attend LGBTQ pride events because they are “especially harmful for children”; a Vatican office issued a document that described transgender people as “provocative” in trying to “annihilate the concept of nature”; and a Catholic high school in Indianapolis that refused to fire a teacher married to a same-sex partner was told by the Archdiocese of Indianapolis that it can no longer call itself Catholic
There is an unmistakable hubris displayed when some in the church are determined to make sexuality the linchpin of Catholic identity at a time when bishops have failed to convince their flock that they are prepared to police predators in their own parishes.
Even before abuse scandals exploded into public consciousness a decade ago and more, many Catholics were tuning out the all-male hierarchy’s teachings on sexuality. Surveys show the vast majority of Catholics use birth control and nearly 70 percent now support same-sex marriage.
This isn’t simply a matter of the church’s image, however. When the Catholic Church describes sexual intimacy between gay people as “intrinsically disordered,” it fails to take into account how this degrading language contributes to higher rates of suicide among LGBTQ people; when it condemns even civil recognition of same-sex unions that don’t impede the church’s ability to define marriage sacramentally, bishops appear indifferent to the roadblocks committed couples without marriage licenses face in hospitals and other settings.
Unless church leaders are content to drive away a generation of young people, these positions are self-inflicted wounds. Millennial Catholics understandably ask why centuries of Catholic teaching on human dignity and justice about don’t apply fully to their LGBTQ friends, family members and teachers. Those who are raised Catholic are more likely than those raised in any other religion to cite negative religious treatment of gay and lesbian people as the primary reason they leave, according to the Public Religion Research Institute.
A document on gender identity released earlier this month from the Vatican’s congregation for Catholic education, titled “Male and Female He Created Them,” underscores why we need a break from lofty church pronouncements on these issues. The document is right in its call for respectful dialogue with LGBTQ people, but the work itself fails to reflect that ideal.
The authors clearly didn’t spend time with transgender Catholics. There was no apparent effort to engage with modern science or contemporary medical insights about gender development. It feels as if it was written in a bunker sealed off from the world in 1950.
Ray Dever, a Catholic deacon who has a transgender daughter and who ministers to Catholic families with transgender members, called the document “totally divorced from the lived reality of transgender people.”
Dever added, “Anyone with firsthand experience with gender identity issues will confirm that for an authentically transgender person, being transgender is not a choice, and it is certainly not driven by any gender theory or ideology.”
While abstract Vatican musings on sex and gender are unhelpful, the church faces a more urgent crisis in the making in the firing of LGBTQ employees at Catholic schools. In a rare display of defiance, Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis clashed with Archbishop Charles Thompson, who wanted the independently operated school to terminate an employee who is civilly married to a person of the same sex. The school refused, and the archbishop now says the school can no longer call itself Catholic. Brebeuf Jesuit’s supervisory body, the Midwest Province of Jesuits, said the decision will be appealed through a church process all the way to the Vatican if necessary.
“We felt we could not in conscience dismiss him from employment,” the Rev. William Verbryke, president of Brebeuf, told the Jesuit publication America magazine earlier this week, explaining that the teacher in question does not teach religion and is not a campus minister.
After the Jesuit school’s decision became national news, another Indiana Catholic high school announced it was complying with the archdiocese and dismissing a teacher in a same-sex marriage. Administrators at Cathedral High School called it “an agonizing decision” and wrote a letter to the school community. “In today’s climate we know that being Catholic can be challenging and we hope that this action does not dishearten you, and most especially, dishearten Cathedral’s young people.”
In recent years, more than 70 LGBTQ church employees and Catholic school teachers have been fired or lost their jobs in employment disputes. Heterosexual Catholics who don’t follow church teaching that prohibits birth control or living together before marriage, for example, are not disciplined the same way by Catholic institutions. The scrutiny targeting gay employees alone is discriminatory and disproportionate.
Efforts to narrow Catholic identity to a “pelvic theology” hyperfocused on human sexuality raise questions about what Christians should be known for as we seek to live the gospel. Are Catholic employees at schools and other Catholic institutions evaluated for how often they visit the imprisoned, care for the sick, treat the environment, confront inequality? All of these moral issues are central to papal encyclicals, centuries of Catholic social teachings and the ministry of Jesus.
“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” Pope Francis said in one of his first interviews after his election. “The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards.”
A year of abstinence for church leaders preaching about sex would demonstrate a symbolic posture of humility that could substantively show those of us still left in the pews that the hierarchy isn’t completely clueless to the stark reality of the present moment.
During their silence on sex and gender, Vatican and local Catholic leaders should get out of their comfort zones and conduct listening sessions with married, divorced, gay, straight and transgender people. They should step away from the microphone and take notes. There would be disagreement, but the simple act of flipping the script — priests and bishops quietly in the back instead of holding forth up front — might help clergy recognize there is a wisdom in lived reality and truth not found solely in dusty church documents.
Taking risks and sitting with discomfort is part of a healthy faith. It’s time for our bishops to lead by taking a step back.
The recent document from the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education talks of an “educational crisis”, and alleges that discussions in relation to gender have “helped to destabilise the family as an institution”. As the parent of a trans child, I find this hugely disappointing.
I have two teenage daughters. Their dad is Catholic, and they’ve been raised in the Catholic faith. When our youngest came out as transgender, we struggled. This was five years ago, and there was limited coverage of trans people in the media. We struggled in our own minds – how can our child know so young? What if she’s wrong? What does this mean? We struggled with our families – unsure of how to tell them, or indeed how they would react. We struggled with our church – would we still be welcome? Should we find a different one? A different school?
I met with the senior leadership team of our Catholic primary school to discuss support. I also sat with our parish sister, and talked over many cups of coffee. Her response has stayed with me. “We are talking about a child. There will be people who don’t understand. The world is changing, and the church can be slow to catch up. But your child should be treated with love, compassion and kindness. Who are we to turn our backs on her?”
Staff at the primary school explained to fellow pupils, in an age-appropriate way, why our child would be using a different name and pronouns after the school holiday. The only change at this stage is a social one – there is no medical intervention. I contacted some of the parents. Messages of support came flooding back.
The year after her social transition, we flew to Ireland for a wedding. This would be the first time that many aunts, uncles and cousins (as well as my 86-year-old mother-in-law) had met our daughter as her true authentic self. Again, as parents we were nervous. These are the people we care about most in the world; how would they respond to our child? The love from family was overwhelming. There will always be those who do not understand, but I saw the relief my daughter felt at being accepted and not ridiculed. Every day I see her thrive and grow in confidence. I am proud of her.
My child’s transition has not led to the “destabilisation of the family institution”. If anything, family bonds are stronger. Her relationship with her grandparents is a joy to behold. She and her sister argue (most siblings do), but there is a closeness that was missing previously. I’ve thought long and hard about why that is. Honestly? She is no longer pretending to be someone she is not. She can relax and be herself.
The Vatican says you can’t choose your gender. Trans and non-binary people don’t “choose” their gender. They know who they are, and they wish to live authentically and happily. What I will say is that families, friends, communities and congregations can choose how to respond. In our case, they have responded with love, compassion and respect, even when they don’t understand.
As I said at the start, I have two teenage daughters. Both now attend our local Catholic secondary school. Both are thriving and happy. Pope Francis envisions an inclusive church – our experience as a family is a reminder that God welcomes all, even and especially those whom society rejects. Our community is made up of people living their faith with compassion through their actions. That, to me, is true Christianity.