In decades past, denominational doctrines often seemed established, immutable, and immoral to oppose. Denominational doctrines seem to be challenged, and in some cases abandoned or revised, in growing numbers. Whether in the distant future these changes will be viewed as aberrational or merely a form of maturation remains for others to determine. Opposing denominational doctrines in court has always faced the all but insurmountable barriers of the First Amendment: the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine (doctrine), the Church Autonomy Doctrine (governance) and the Ministerial Exception (“ministry” employment).
In Payne-Elliott v Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Inc., Slip Op. (Ind. 2022), the Supreme Court of Indiana affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the case. The Court concluded the plaintiff pled himself out of court by pleading facts that established the Church Autonomy Doctrine defense. The opinion reported the Plaintiff’s same sex marriage led to two different results. The Plaintiff’s spouse was an elementary school teacher at a Catholic elementary school. The elementary school refused to terminate the spouse. The archdiocese removed the school from the denomination. The archdiocese ordered the Catholic high school employing the Plaintiff to terminate Plaintiff and they did so. Apparently, the high school entered a financial settlement with the Plaintiff. However, the case continued against the archdiocese. The Supreme Court of Indiana set forth the elements of the Church Autonomy Doctrine affirmative defense as prohibiting a court from penalizing via tort law a communication among church officials on a matter of internal church policy (i.e., governance) that does not culminate in a criminal act. Because the Plaintiff pled that the Catholic high school was commanded by the denomination to terminate Plaintiff due to Catholic doctrine, the Church Autonomy Doctrine elements were held satisfied resulting in dismissal.
While the legal outcome of the reported case was not surprising, we have reported many similar decisions and few exceptions, the reported case was startling because of its “Birdseye view” of denominational doctrinal slippage. A Catholic school stopped being a Catholic school. Another Catholic school paid a settlement to avoid further litigation. Only the denomination continued until the case was concluded. Only future generations of church members will be able to judge whether choices like these were reached following immutable doctrine or reflecting changing doctrine.