In the News 5/8/21

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The Loop from CatholicVote is an email Catholic news service. Three important stories on the Weekend Loop came to my attention regarding Church-State Relations:

Indiana Court Dismisses Lawsuit Against Archdiocese. An Indiana Court dismissed a lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Indianapolis filed by Joshua Payne-Elliott. Payne-Elliott is a former teacher at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis. Payne-Elliott entered into a same-sex marriage in 2017 with Layton Payne-Elliott, who teaches at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School. After two years of considering the matter, the Archdiocese instructed both Catholic schools that the men’s employment could not continue, as their life choices were contrary to Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality.

Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School refused to let Layton Payne-Elliott go, in disobedience to the archbishop’s instructions. As such, their status as a Catholic school was revoked by the archdiocese. Cathedral High School, however, obeyed the archbishop and dismissed Joshua Payne-Elliott. After reaching a settlement with Cathedral High School, Payne-Elliott filed his lawsuit in 2019. It was that lawsuit that was dismissed by an Indiana Court last Friday, thereby securing the right of religious schools to determine who will teach in their schools according to their religious mission.

Becket, a law firm that serves those seeking to protect their religious liberty against government encroachment, represented the Archdiocese. Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, had much to say about the lawsuit. “Every Catholic school teacher in the Archdiocese,” Goodrich explained, “signs an agreement to uphold the Church’s teaching in word and deed. The teacher here was dismissed after he entered a same-sex union in knowing violation of this agreement and of millennia of Catholic teaching. … It is important that courts consistently uphold the right of religious groups to operate by their religious principles. Choosing who teaches in a religious school is a religious decision. Today’s order ensures that those decisions will be made by churches, not governments.”

“If the First Amendment means anything,” Goodrich said, “it means the government can’t punish the Catholic Church for asking Catholic educators to support Catholic teaching.”

Catholic and other religious believers are concerned that if the Equality Act passes the Senate (it has already passed the House) and is signed by President Biden, who supports it, the right of Catholic schools to dismiss teachers who refuse or fail to uphold Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality will be abrogated by the new law.

The next two stories regard government attempts to limit church activities during the COVID pandemic, often contrary to the less-restrictive activities enjoyed by secular organizations and institutions:

MN settles with churches over restrictions. The governor and attorney general of Minnesota have agreed to settle with two Christian churches that sued the state over what they called unreasonable restrictions on church attendance.

Northland Baptist Church and Living Word Christian Center had sued Minnesota over restrictions on attendance capacity during the pandemic. Gov. Tim Walz (D) filed to have the suit dismissed, but he lost. After losing, he and Attorney General Keith Ellison decided to settle, so that emergency orders related to activities of institutions during the pandemic cannot discriminate against churches. In many states, churches have faced restrictions that are far more restrictive than those applying to secular businesses and institutions.

A statement by the Upper Midwest Law Center, which represented the two churches, said: “In the settlement, Governor Walz relinquished any authority to treat houses of worship in Minnesota worse than grocery and retail outlets or sports and entertainment venues, which was the case in the first set of COVID-19 orders that shut down Minnesota’s churches—but not Governor Walz’ favored few businesses.”

Interestingly, the settlement also protects smaller, non-religious businesses, which had complained that Gov. Walz had favored larger businesses by placing greater restrictions on them than on the bigger businesses of the state.

Archdiocese sues over prison COVID policies. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee has filed a lawsuit against the Department of Corrections (DOC) over protocols adopted by the DOC that keep clergy from visiting and ministering to prison inmates.

The archdiocese complains that the DOC protocols adopted in March of 2020 allow psychologists, social workers, attorneys, and employees of the DOC to visit inmates, so long as they follow COVID safety protocols. The DOC, however, “does not apply the same standard to religious ministers,” the lawsuit claims. The lawsuit claims these practices are in violation of the prisoners’ First Amendment rights and of a Wisconsin state law that guarantees weekly visits from clergy for the purpose of ministering to the prisoners.

Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) is representing the Archdiocese. In a letter to the DOC, WILL wrote, “There is no rational connection between the DOC’s policy and its interest in combating COVID-19, given that the DOC allows social workers and lawyers entrance from outside of facilities, for example, but not clergy.” The DOC, WILL wrote, “must act now to restore the rights of Wisconsin’s inmates to freely exercise their religion. One year of violations is long enough.” WILL claims that the DOC did not respond to their letter, so they filed suit on behalf of the Archdiocese.

There is nothing about placing reasonable restrictions on churches and ministers in order to protect the public from a pandemic that is inherently in violation of the First Amendment. What is inherently in violation of the First Amendment is when state or federal governments put restrictions on churches and ministers that are either unreasonable or that are more restrictive than those placed on secular institutions, organizations, or workers. As Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in agreement with the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down unequal restrictions on religious bodies in New York state, “It is time — past time — to make plain that, while the pandemic poses many grave challenges, there is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues and mosques.”

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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