June 2024 Church & State Magazine - June 2024

Federal appeals court allows N.C. Catholic school to fire gay teacher


Billard: fired for loving (Screenshot from WCNC-TV)

A federal appeals court has ruled that a Catholic high school in Charlotte, N.C., has the right to fire a gay substitute teacher who taught English and drama classes.

The teacher, Lonnie Billard, has no explicit religious duties, and the school, Charlotte Catholic High School, had previously admitted that teachers who instruct in secular subjects are discouraged from discussing Catholic doctrine with students.

Nevertheless, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last month that Billard counts as a minister and thus falls under a legal doctrine known as the “ministerial exception.” The doctrine allows religious groups wide latitude to choose their own employees, such as the clergy who officiate at religious services.

Americans United supports the right of religious organizations to hire and fire their own clergy but believes the ministerial exception has been taken too far. In recent years, courts have applied it to employees at religious schools who have no religious duties. This means that these employees don’t have the employment protections that other Americans enjoy.

While Billard taught secular subjects, the appeals court ruled that he played “a vital role as a messenger of faith,” reported The Washington Post. He didn’t teach about Catholicism but was required to make sure the material he taught did not run afoul of church doctrine, and he took students to religious services.

Billard, who had taught at the school full time and as a substitute for more than 10 years, was fired after he announced on Facebook in October 2014 that he planned to marry his male partner. The two took the step shortly after marriage equality became law in North Carolina. His case against the school was backed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

“This is a heartbreaking decision for our client who wanted nothing more than the freedom to perform his duties as an educator without hiding who he is or who he loves,” the ACLU said in a statement. “Every worker should be entitled to equal protection under the law, and the Supreme Court held as recently as 2020 that this fundamental freedom extends to LGBTQ workers. While today’s decision is narrowly tailored to Mr. Billard and the facts of his employment, it nonetheless threatens to encroach on that principle by widening the loopholes employers may use to fire people like Mr. Billard for openly discriminatory reasons.”

The case is Billard v. Charlotte Catholic High School.

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