Appeals Court Refused to Dismiss a Former Employee’s Wrongful Termination Lawsuit

The trial court failed to conduct a “fact-sensitive and claim specific” analysis to determine if the First Amendment bars the former employee’s claims against a Roman Catholic archdiocese.

Key point 8-12.01. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers engaged in commerce and having at least 15 employees from discriminating in any employment decision on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender, or religion. Religious organizations are exempt from the ban on religious discrimination but not from the other prohibited forms of discrimination.

Key point 8-21.02. Many state civil rights laws prohibit employers with a specified number of employees from discriminating in any employment decision on the basis of the sexual orientation of an employee or applicant for employment. Such laws generally exempt religious organizations.

An Indiana court refused to dismiss a former employee’s wrongful termination lawsuit against a Roman Catholic archdiocese on the ground that the trial court had yet to undertake a “fact-sensitive and claim specific” analysis that must precede analysis of whether the First Amendment bars the plaintiff’s claims against the archdiocese.


A high school (the “school”) located in Indianapolis is affiliated with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis. In 2006, the school extended a teaching contract to a language and social studies teacher (the “plaintiff”).

Over the ensuing decade, the school renewed the plaintiff’s teaching contract annually. In 2017, the plaintiff married his same-sex partner, who is a teacher at a Jesuit preparatory school (the “preparatory school”). The school last renewed the plaintiff’s teaching contract on May 21, 2019, for the 2019–2020 academic year.

On May 24, 2019, the school’s president informed the plaintiff that the archbishop of the archdiocese would soon require the school to “adopt and enforce morals clause language used in teacher contracts at Archdiocesan schools” in order for the school to retain its status as a recognized Catholic institution. The archdiocese issued the same directive to both the school and the preparatory school. The morals clause language provides as follows:

The Archdiocese recognizes that many teachers who contribute positively to the mission of the Church in forming young people through our Catholic schools are not practicing Catholics. For faculty members of other faith traditions, there remains an expectation that, regardless of their personal religious affiliations and beliefs, they will become knowledgeable of Catholic Church teachings, will be credible witnesses of the Catholic faith and will be models of Christian values. Catholic schools are ministries of the Catholic Church, and faculty members are vital to sharing the mission of the Church. Teachers are expected to be role models and are expressly charged with leading their students toward Christian maturity and with teaching the word of God. As role models for students, the personal conduct of every teacher and staff member must convey and be supportive of the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Determining whether a faculty member is conducting him/herself in accordance with the teachings of the Catholic Church is an internal Church/School matter and is at the discretion of the pastor, administrator, and/or Archbishop.

In a letter dated June 20, 2019, the preparatory school declined to terminate the employment of the plaintiff’s spouse. On June 21, 2019, the Archbishop decreed that the preparatory school could no longer designate itself as “Catholic”; the archdiocese no longer recognized the preparatory school as a Catholic institution; and the preparatory school would be omitted from The Official Catholic Directory.

On June 23, 2019, the school terminated the plaintiff’s teaching contract. That same day, the school issued a letter to parents, teachers, and staff that outlined the situation.

The plaintiff: archdiocese interfered with his contractual and employment relationship

On July 10, 2019, the plaintiff filed a complaint alleging that the archdiocese intentionally interfered with his contractual relationship and with his employment relationship with the school.

In his complaint, the plaintiff alleged that: (1) he is a homosexual male, who has been in a same-sex marriage since 2017; (2) he was under a teaching contract at the school in the 2019–2020 calendar year; (3) the archdiocese issued a directive, wherein the school was required to adopt and enforce morals clause language used in teacher contracts at archdiocese-recognized schools, was required to discontinue its employment of any teacher in a public, same-sex marriage, and could forfeit being formally recognized as a Catholic school in the archdiocese by failing to comply with the directive; and (4) the school subsequently terminated the plaintiff’s employment.

On May 7, 2021, the trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s lawsuit on the ground that the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom deprived it of jurisdiction to adjudicate his claims.

The plaintiff promptly appealed, claiming that the trial court erred in dismissing his case because “[his] claims do not implicate internal church governance, require the courts to resolve an ecclesiastical controversy, or otherwise excessively entangle the courts with religion.” The archdiocese countered that, in issuing the directive to the school, it “act[ed] in accordance with ecclesiastical directive[,]” deriving from canon law, which courts cannot review or question.

The appeals court began its opinion by noting:

[T]he First Amendment to the United States Constitution . . . requires civil courts to refrain from interfering in matters of church discipline, faith, practice, and religious law. Thus, civil courts are precluded from resolving disputes involving churches if “resolution of the disputes cannot be made without extensive inquiry . . . into religious law and polity. . . .” Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976). The basic law in Indiana is that courts will not interfere with the internal affairs of a private organization unless a personal liberty or property right is jeopardized. “Thus, the articles of incorporation and by-laws of a not-for-profit corporation are generally considered to be a contract between the corporation and its members and among the members themselves.”

We have held that “personnel decisions are protected from civil court interference where review by the civil courts would require the courts to interpret and apply religious doctrine or ecclesiastical law. Ecclesiastical matters include “a matter which concerns theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of the church to the standard of morals required of them.”

But the court noted that the First Amendment does not prohibit courts from opening their doors to religious organizations. Instead, “a court can apply neutral principles of law to churches without violating the First Amendment. The First Amendment only prohibits the court from determining underlying questions of religious doctrine and practice.”

The court concluded that the trial court erred in dismissing the plaintiff’s claim. It noted that under the “church autonomy doctrine” churches have a First Amendment right to autonomy “in making decisions regarding their own internal affairs including matters of faith, doctrine, and internal governance.” But the First Amendment “does not immunize every legal claim against a religious institution and its members. The analysis in each case is fact-sensitive and claim specific, requiring an assessment of every issue raised in terms of doctrinal and administrative intrusion and entanglement.”

The court concluded that in this case the parties had yet to undertake the requisite “fact-sensitive and claim specific” analysis that must precede analysis of whether the First Amendment bars the plaintiff’s claims against the archdiocese.

What this means for churches

The court concluded that while it was barred by the “church autonomy doctrine” from adjudicating matters pertaining to a church’s internal affairs including matters of faith, doctrine, and internal governance, such a result was not proper without a “fact-sensitive and claim specific analysis requiring an assessment of every issue raised in terms of doctrinal and administrative intrusion and entanglement.”

Since the trial court had neglected to perform such an analysis, its dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims had to be reversed. Note that the court’s decision was based on a technicality, and not the merits of the archdiocese’s legal defenses. The case was remanded back to the trial court for a “fact-sensitive and claim specific analysis requiring an assessment of every issue raised in terms of doctrinal and administrative intrusion and entanglement.” The results of such an analysis may well result in a dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims.

There is one additional aspect of this case that deserves consideration. The plaintiff brought the following two claims against the archdiocese:

  • intentional interference with a contract, and
  • intentional interference with an employment relationship

These bases of church liability were addressed in a 2021 case in Pennsylvania that was discussed in the Legal Development on Tracy v. O’Bell, 268 A.3d 405 (Pa. App. 2021).

Payne-Elliott v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese, 180 N.E.3d 311 (Ind. App. 2021)

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