Charlotte Catholic High School (CCHS) in Charlotte, North Carolina, discriminated against a homosexual teacher when it fired him in 2014, a federal district court has ruled. Because recent cases from the U.S. Supreme Court have held that religious schools are permitted to hire and fire their teachers free from the interference of government nondiscrimination laws under certain conditions, the facts of this case are important to understand.
In 2001, Lonnie Billard was hired as a full-time teacher by CCHS. He says that his homosexuality was known by the school, and he even took his male partner to school functions. In 2012, Billard retired but continued to act as a substitute teacher for a drama class.
In 2014, the courts struck down North Carolina’s marriage amendment limiting marriage to one man and one woman. That’s when Billard announced his upcoming marriage to his partner via a Facebook post. When the school learned of it, Billard was terminated, with the high school claiming that he was openly opposing church doctrine. He filed a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC), claiming he was unlawfully discriminated against on the basis of “sex,” a protected employment category in Title VII, the primary federal employment nondiscrimination law.
A couple other legal developments impacted this case along the way. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that there was a “right” to “same-sex marriage” in the Constitution. In 2020, the high court also held, in Bostock v. Clayton County, that the definition of “sex” in Title VII was broad enough to include sexual orientation.
But the Supreme Court has also ruled, in several high-profile cases, that a doctrine known as the “ministerial exception,” which is grounded in the First Amendment’s religion clauses, protects the employment decisions of religious organizations with respect to its ministers, i.e., those who inculcate the faith in others.
That includes teachers with responsibility for passing along a religious faith to the students at a religious school. Those cases include Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC from 2012, and Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru decided in 2020.
So why did federal district judge Max O. Cogburn Jr. not apply the same First Amendment protection to CCHS’s decision to terminate Billard’s teaching contract? According to Cogburn, the case hinged on the fact that Billard had no religious duties at all, and was, in fact, discouraged from incorporating religious teaching when he taught his drama class.
“The Court respects the sincerity of the Catholic Church’s opposition to Plaintiff’s actions,” Judge Cogburn wrote in his 54-page decision. “With a slightly different set of facts, the Court may have been compelled to protect the church’s employment decision. However, where as here, Plaintiff lost his job because of sex discrimination and where he was working as a substitute teacher of secular subjects without any responsibility for providing religious education to students, the Court must protect Plaintiff’s civil and employment rights.” (emphasis added)
CCHS disagrees with the judge’s 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,” according to the statement from the diocese, as reported in The Charlotte Observer. “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. Like all religious schools, Catholic schools are permitted to employ educators who support our Church’s teachings and will not publicly oppose them.”
CCHS is considering whether to appeal. If it does so, a key element of its appeal will have to be a showing that Billard was indeed responsible for helping pass on the Catholic faith to his students in some manner.
In a culture where faith-based organizations are being squeezed to conform to the world’s values, this case proves the importance of religious schools maintaining and practicing the faith tenets and principles that make religious education so special. By requiring its teachers and administrators to be important contributors to the religious upbringing of students, a religious school can count on the courts to protect the employment decisions of those schools.
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