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Court Rules Catholic School Could Fire Gay Teacher Who Announced His Wedding Online

An appeals court has sided with a Catholic school in North Carolina that fired a gay teacher after he announced that he was planning to get married to another man.

The decision by a panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, reversed a lower court’s ruling from 2021 that Charlotte Catholic High School and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte, Virginia, had violated the teacher’s civil rights, according to CBS News.

The lower court ruled that drama and English teacher Lonnie Billard was improperly released from his job and was a victim of sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Billard was classified as a “lay teacher” at the Catholic school because he did not teach any religious classwork and, starting in 2001, he taught at the school for more than 10 years until his contract was not renewed in 2014.

That final year, in the wake of North Carolina’s legalization of gay marriage, Billard had taken to his social media accounts to announce that he was getting married.

In the ruling released Wednesday, the court wrote that Charlotte Catholic “contested Billard’s claim that it had fired him because of his sex or sexual orientation, arguing that it fired him only because he engaged in ‘advocacy in favor of a position that is opposed to what the church teaches about marriage.’”

After Billard was fired, he sued and won his case in a lower court. That luck, though did not hold out during the procedure at the appeals court.

In the appeals court’s ruling, Judge Pamela Harris wrote that Billard’s job was not protected by civil rights laws due to the “ministerial exception,” which gives more latitude to religious institutions for how they can treat employees “who perform tasks so central to their religious missions – even if the tasks themselves do not advertise their religious nature.”

Judge Paul Victor Niemeyer concurred with the Harris opinion. A third judge on the panel agreed with the reversal but disagreed that the case should be decided on the ministerial exception, according to CBS. He wrote that the case fell under a different exception, CBS reported.

Charlotte Catholic does not require all its employees to be Catholic, but it does require them to conform to the school’s Catholic ethos and prohibits them from advocating for things that violate church tenets. The school argued that rejecting same-sex marriage is one of those requirements, according to Law & Crime.

The appeals court ruled that Billard was still considered a “messenger” of the school’s beliefs, even though he was a secular man teaching secular subjects.

“The record makes clear that (Charlotte Catholic) considered it ‘vital’ to its religious mission that its teachers bring a Catholic perspective to bear on Shakespeare as well as on the Bible,” Harris, a Barack Obama appointee, wrote in the ruling filed Wednesday.

“Our court has recognized before that seemingly secular tasks like the teaching of English and drama may be so imbued with religious significance that they implicate the ministerial exception,” she wrote in another part of the ruling.

A leader of the law firm that represented the Charlotte diocese praised the unanimous decision, saying it is, “a victory for people of all faiths who cherish the freedom to pass on their faith to the next generation.”

“The Supreme Court has been crystal clear on this issue: Catholic schools have the freedom to choose teachers who fully support Catholic teaching,” Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said in a statement, according to CBS.

The court wrangled with the ministerial exception rule and debated whether or not to allow it to be invoked as a defense for the school. Ultimately, the majority decided it was permissible in this case.

In a separate opinion, Clinton appointee Judge Robert King agreed that Charlotte Catholic had the right to fire Billard, but argued that the case fell under an exception different from what the other two judges cited, Law & Crime explained.

Unsurprisingly, Billard was disappointed with the court’s decision to overturn the lower court’s more favorable ruling.

“There’s lots and lots of case law that backs me up. But my biggest feeling is confusion,” he told CNN. “I just felt you can’t tell people who you can love and who you can marry. That’s not right, you can’t, you shouldn’t be able to fire somebody because they love someone else. And that’s why I went through what I did.”

READ 6 COMMENTS
  • Sharon and Leonard Wojno says:

    But your working in an institution that teachers morals. If you do not support that work places goals then you do not belong there. You should have volunteeily left. People have a right to their beliefs. I am a practitioner of Sanantana Dharma and if i got a job in a Christian School it would not be appropriate for me to bring in my religious experiences that are different from their philosophy. That is respect. You do not have any respect for the people who send their children to that religious institution.

  • Simon says:

    ” “I just felt you can’t tell people who you can love and who you can marry. That’s not right, you can’t, you shouldn’t be able to fire somebody because they love someone else. And that’s why I went through what I did.”

    The school didn’t tell you who you could love. They just decided whether or not they were going to employ you due to your moral decisions. Love who you want — go work somewhere else. You went through all of it (and put your former employer through all of it) for your “feelings.” Hope they get awarded you paying their legal fees for all of this too.

    • RS says:

      It’s a moral issue and it goes against God’s word. So Simon give it some thought.

      • Richard Davis says:

        Ram it was a legal issue the school requires you to hold to the teachings of their religion if he had not posted it on the internet and not spoken about it in a setting like the classroom or a school function he might have kept his job but he didn’t do that what he does in his private life is one thing but when he goes publicly c he took a chance and lost

  • Richard Davis says:

    If he had kept his mouth shut and hadn’t put the announcement on the internet he probably would have been able to keep his job as long as he kept his lifestyle to himself and not talked about it in the classroom

  • Loring says:

    I love how liberals are quick to point out the so called separation between Church and state clause in the Constitution. Which reads ,”Congress make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting its free exercise”. In essence, the govern is supposed to stay out of the realm of religion. God’s Word calls homosexuality an abomination. So how can the government tell a Church that believes the Bible, they are discriminating, if they refuse to even hire such a one.

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