A federal judge has ruled that a Roman Catholic school in North Carolina unlawfully fired a gay substitute drama teacher after he announced on social media in 2014 that he was going to marry his longtime partner.
Lonnie Billard, an English and drama teacher at Charlotte Catholic High School in Charlotte, N.C., taught full time at the school for more than 13 years, even earning its Teacher of the Year award in 2012. Shortly afterward, before the start of the 2012-2013 school year, Billard retired from teaching full time, but continued to work as a regular substitute teacher at the school.
In October 2014, he posted to Facebook about his plans to marry his long-term partner. Weeks later, after receiving a “complaint” from someone about Billard’s post, school officials informed Billard that he was being terminated from his position as a substitute.
In his initial complaint, Billard said he never hid his sexuality from school officials, and his partner had even attended school events and met with members of the staff. The diocese claimed he was fired for entering into a same-sex relationship and announcing his intention to flout Church doctrine regarding same-sex marriage, claiming that publicly posting about his upcoming nuptials was a form of “advocacy” that contradicts the Catholic Church’s opposition to same-sex marriage, reports The Associated Press.
On Friday, U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn, of the Western District of North Carolina, ruled last week that the school and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Charlotte violated Billard’s right to be free from sex-based discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
Cogburn granted summary judgment to Billard, ruling that Title VII’s ministerial exception — under which religious entities are permitted to discriminate in employing individuals based on the concept that the employees, in the course of their daily work, are considered “ministers” expected to comply with and conform their lives to the tenets of a particular religion — as well as the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendment’s protections for freedom of association do not shield the school or the diocese from being sued for sex-based discrimination.
Cogburn also ordered the case to go to trial to determine the type of relief to which Billard may be entitled.
In his ruling, Cogburn found that keeping Billard on as a substitute teacher “would not significantly impair” the school’s or the diocese’s freedom of expressive association, as he was explicitly advised to refrain from weighing in on religious topics or doctrinal matters.
Cogburn noted that the school didn’t require Billard to be Catholic and “even explicitly [encouraged] him and other teachers of non-religious subjects to refrain from teaching religious topics in their classrooms.” Cogburn added that Billard’s right to be free from sex discrimination in employment is a “compelling interest of the highest order.”
See also: Supreme Court says religious schools can fire LGBTQ employees despite nondiscrimination laws
Billard praised Cogburn’s decision in a statement released by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of North Carolina, and the law firmTin Fulton Walker & Owen, which are jointly representing Billard in his lawsuit.
“After all this time, I have a sense of relief and a sense of vindication. I wish I could have remained teaching all this time,” Billard said. “Today’s decision validates that I did nothing wrong by being a gay man.”
“Today’s decision is one of the first applications of the Supreme Court’s ban on sex discrimination to employees of private religious schools,” Irena Como, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of North Carolina, said in a statement, referring to the high court’s decision in an employment discrimination case last year.
“The court sent a clear message that Charlotte Catholic violated Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination when it fired Mr. Billard for announcing his engagement to his same-sex partner,” Como added. “Religious schools have the right to decide who will perform religious functions or teach religious doctrine, but when they hire employees for secular jobs they must comply with Title VII and cannot discriminate based on sexual orientation.”
The diocese released a statement to The Charlotte Observer saying it disagreed with the court’s ruling and was considering how to proceed. Given that other courts have previously given religious schools significant leeway in their hiring practices, based on a broad interpretation of the ministerial exception to Title VII, it is likely the diocese will ultimately appeal the decision.
“The First Amendment, federal law, and recent Supreme Court decisions all recognize the rights of religious organizations to make employment decisions based on religious observance and preference,” the diocese said in its statement. “They do not — and should not — compel religious schools to employ teachers who publicly contradict their teachings.
“The Catholic schools offered by the Diocese of Charlotte exist to provide high-quality education and transmit the Catholic faith to the next generation,” the statement continued. “Like all religious schools, Catholic schools are permitted to employ educators who support our Church’s teachings and will not publicly oppose them.”
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