Bishop: Diocese Would Be “Irreparably Damaged” If Unable to Fire Church Workers

A bishop has claimed that the diocese over which he presides would be “irreparably damaged” if it is unable to fire church workers at will.

Lonnie Billard, left, with husband Richard Donham

Bishop Peter Jugis of Charlotte, North Carolina, made his remarks while being deposed in the federal workplace discrimination court case of Lonnie Billard, who was fired from Charlotte Catholic High School in 2014 when his engagement to a man became public.

Jugis said in the deposition that continuing to employ church workers who advocate against or violate “fundamental moral tenets” of church teaching would be a cause for “scandal.” The Charlotte Observer reported further:

“The Charlotte case pits two competing claims – Billard’s charge of workplace discrimination vs. Jugis’ argument for religious freedom – and could help decide whether churches and religious schools can continue to fire gay employees for marrying their partners or even for publicly acknowledging a sexual relationship with them.

“Jugis insists that even non-Catholic employees like Billard should lose their jobs if they publicly contradict – in word or action – church teaching against homosexual behavior.

“Billard’s lawyers, including some from the national ACLU, argue that he is a teacher, not a minister, so should be protected by federal laws forbidding workplace discrimination on the basis of sex.”

Interestingly, in this case the Diocese of Charlotte is not appealing to any ministerial exemption outright, but if their argument is successful, this could potentially widen exemptions for religious employers. The Diocese has said the Billard lawsuit seeks to “force defendants to employ persons who publicly oppose their message and mission,” an action which the Diocese claimed would infringe on religious liberty. Billard’s lawyers, however, have argued that, given the Diocese waived any claims of ministerial exemptions, this case is a clear instance of employment discrimination. Billard himself has rebuffed Jugis’ claim about scandal, saying:

“The fact that I happen to love another person and that person happens to be another man – I don’t see that as scandalous.”

Billard, who taught English and Drama and was named “Teacher of the Year” in 2012, taught at Charlotte Catholic for more than a decade before he was fired. He claimed the school community was well aware both that he was gay and had a partner, and commented in 2014, “I don’t think my commitment to my husband has any bearing on my work in the classroom. . .People should be able to fall in love and get married without risking their jobs.” Billard has since left the Catholic Church and is now Episcopalian.

Under Jugis’ leadership, the Diocese of Charlotte has experienced repeated instances of anti-LGBT discrimination against church workers. Besides the firing of Lonnie Billard, Steav Bates-Congdon, a parish music director, was fired in 2012 because of his same-gender marriage.  Similarly, in 2016, musical performer Kat Williams was denied to sing at a benefit concert. At least 70 church workers have lost their jobs in LGBT-related employment disputes over the last decade. You can find a listing of fired church workers and other employment resources by clicking here.

Last week, Bondings 2.0 highlighted how the concerns of LGBT church workers fit well within Pope Francis’ prayer intention for workers and the unemployed this month. To find out what you can do to help support and attain justice for LGBT church workers and their allies, click here.

–Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, October 22, 2017


17 replies
  1. Terence Weldon
    Terence Weldon says:

    What is truly scandalous, is when church bishops ignore both the Gospels’ clear message of inclusion for all, and the Church’s own teaching on the primacy of conscience, and on the importance of social justice – including employment justice.
    Bishop Jugis should also remember that by no stretch of the imagination, is Vatican doctrine about same-sex marriage a “fundamental tenet” of church teaching. The most fundamental tenets are those proclaimed in the creed, and below those, the decrees of ecumenical councils, and papal encyclicals. None of these have anything at all to say about gay marriage.
    What we have, is a couple of letters from the CDF – outranked in importance by Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “The Joy of Love”, which states that the church is opposed to same-sex marriage – but also emphasises the importance of pastoral accompaniment for gay people, listening to them, freedom of conscience and discernment on moral choices. It also notes that what may well be true in the abstract, is not necessarily so subjectively, for individual persons. Many would infer from this document that gay Catholics who in good conscience choose to marry a same-sex spouse, are acting in full accord with the full magisterium. At worst, even if there is a conflict, it is not remotely with any “fundamental tenet” of teaching.
    In addition to the magisterium from the papacy, there is also the magisterium of the bishops. It is from these, that the bulk of the arguments against gay marriage have come in the past – but even this is changing. As this site has carefully recorded, a steadily increasing number of Catholic bishops are coming to accept the value of legal protections for same-sex civil unions. Some (eg, in Australia at present) are now starting go further, and accept that because there is a fundamental distinction between civil marriage and the sacrament of matrimony, there “is a case” for supporting gay civil marriage.
    Finally, there is the important but frequently overlooked “magisterium of the laity”, also known as the “sensus fideii”. Abundant social research has shown that right across North America, Western Europe and many other areas, ordinary Catholics in fact support marriage equality. In the broader field of sexual ethics as a whole, there is no evidence at all that the Catholics globally have accepted the core Vatican doctrine of no sex at all, outside of marriage and open to procreation.

    Without acceptance by the sensus fideii, it is not even clear that Vatican statements against gay marriage have any sound legitimacy as teaching at all – let alone far-fetched claims of “fundamental tenets” thereof.

  2. Thomas Ellison
    Thomas Ellison says:

    I look forward to the day when positions like those of Bishop Jugis are looked at as misguided by a more inclusive church. I think the church has a right to fire someone who performs poorly or is frequently absent or has a flagrant disregard for their responsibilities within the job description. But not for loving someone.

  3. Bishop Carlos A Florido, osf
    Bishop Carlos A Florido, osf says:

    That’s a ridiculous argument. Of course, an employee can be discharged for a number of reasons, but not for being who s/he essentially is. Through sound research and experience, it is now evident that a person doesn’t choose to be gay.

  4. Tom Bower
    Tom Bower says:

    On this day, the week before Reformation Sunday, I hope Bishop Jugis will be true to his message and fire any Protestants who might be employed by his diocese. It stands to reason that there can be no greater scandal than to allow such individual who are in open revolt to any number of Roman Catholic principles. Like homosexuals who would dare to express their love there can be no room for any gray area of who is acceptable to be a member of the Bishop’s team. It just makes sense, until you realize the diocese isn’t the Bishop’s, it is God’s and should reflect His grace and welcome.

    • Kevin
      Kevin says:

      Good comment. Will teachers who use artificial contraception be fired? Good luck with that one! They’d likely have to dismiss 80%+ of their faculty. How about those who have used IVF? In the school where I teach, they would have to dismiss at least three teacher (They’ve told me they used it when unable to have children.).

  5. P
    P says:

    Trying to think this through: Bottom line, doesn’t the church teaching on homosexual sin have to change? These employment discrimination cases and the defense of “religious liberty” are logical entanglements with both adversaries having justice on their sides. An employer should be able to fire someone who is speaking and acting contrary to the interests of the employer. Employees should be able to marry whomever the law allows them to marry and be evaluated as employees on their job performance. The church could say all its employees have ministerial duties as Catholic educators, from maintenance personnel to top executives. They are all in the business of forming the minds and hearts of parishioners or students according to the doctrines of the religion by word and example. The problem is that one of the employer’s doctrines (homosexual acts are sins) is not generally held to be true, and firing based on the employee’s denying it causes economic hardship and insult to persons. Can the state say the church may not use denying that doctrine as a firing offense? What are courts of justice to do? Of course, everyone who denies the sinfulness per se of homosexual acts could leave Catholic Church employment. The church could give up all federal and state funding and discriminate as it wishes. Or the church could reformulate sexual morality and accept homosexual love as good.

  6. John Hilgeman
    John Hilgeman says:

    Strange that civil marriage equality has become one of the core doctrines of the RC Church though Jesus never said anything about this. Also strange that it has become imperative to fire an employee because they are in a committed loving relationship.

    The scandal in this situation is not that an employee married another man in a civil marriage. It is that the bishop would behave in such a discriminatory way.

    It is a central teaching of the Church that Jesus becomes present in the Eucharist. If this teacher belongs to a Protestant denomination that does not believe this, would that be a fireable offense? Or if he were Jewish, and not believe that Jesus is divine, would that be fireable? Or if he disagreed with the social justice teachings of the Church, would he be a scandal and thus fireable?

    • Friends
      Friends says:

      Very incisive analysis, John Hilgeman. Not to put too fine a point on it: what appears to be happening is that certain people who are forcibly celibate (priests), or lay people who may or may not be celibate, but who harbor a strong prejudice against GLBT folks, are presuming to speak on behalf of the doctrine of the entire global Roman Catholic Church. No single human being has the personal standing or status to do so. The Pope has the closest approximation of authority to do so — but even this Pope has declined to condemn gay Christians for being gay, even if they happen to be in partnered relationships. He has spoken very kindly of certain personal friends of his, who happen to be gay, and also happen to be partnered. If the Pope himself refuses to judge or condemn those partnerships, what authority do the far-right-wing anti-gay zealots within the Church posses to do so?

  7. John Flaherty
    John Flaherty says:

    I have long been disgusted by the ACLU’s bigotry. By demanding that We treat the nation’s laws from a secular view–which We, the People, have never approved–they can define morals and actions as scandalously as they wish. For their apparent view, one must be an ordained minister before one may be held accountable to any religious moral standard. Notably, these actions differ greatly from the average Protestant, who while not in fully in communion with Holy Mother Church, does not typically seek to reject Catholic teaching in this manner. These men and the ACLU should be ashamed.

  8. Miriam
    Miriam says:

    Many of us Catholic Christians cannot leave our church however badly we are treated. Nor should we expect the secular government to protect us.

    • Kevin Welbes Godin
      Kevin Welbes Godin says:

      Miriam, I understand your statement and even find myself not wanting to leave the church. And, at the same time, I wonder why do I stay in a church that continues to demean, punish, and throw people out? It seems so masochistic.

      • Miriam
        Miriam says:

        Kevin, I, in part, rely on the words of Simon Peter, John 6:67-69. “Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go ? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” Masochism “is characterized by pleasure in being abused, by a loved one.” That according to Webster. Simon Peter and the Apostles who were martyred were no masochists. When the Sons of Thunder asked Jesus for a high place in the Kingdom, the others were indignant but did not leave the assembly. When John was dismissed by Diot’rophes (3Jn9ff) John did not leave the assembly, the Church.

  9. Pst D
    Pst D says:

    I am compelled to reject Bishop Jugis’s action and condemnation. First of all, as a cradle Catholic, I am ashamed of the Bishop, an authority in the Catholic Church, for his non-Christian behavior and remarks made during a federal deposition in a LGBT discrimination case. As a practicing Catholic, pre-Vatican II generation, I find his testimony regarding same-gender relationships(unions) to be extremely scandalous. Many Catholics, probably the majority of the post-Vatican II generations, are supportive of LGBT equality and relationships. However, the majority of those of my generation are reluctant (ambivalent) to oppose church teaching and doctrine. I was one of those- “if that is what the church hierarchy says it is good enough for me.” I have many friends and family members who feel that way. In other words, They still have their heads in the sand as I did until mid-life. Fortunately, most, being good Christians, unconditionally love and come to accept a brother, sister, cousin, friend or fellow worker who is in a same-gender relationship. Unfortunately, some of these good Christians take a “don’t tell” attitude.

    Bishop Jugis’s public actions are in opposition to what Pope Francis has been trying to achieve in the Church. The Pontiff has said “We should condemn situations in which the rights and dignity of those in the workplace are violated, and we should pray that all workers receive respect and protection of their rights.” While Pope Francis has been advocating for a more pastoral approach by the clergy, particularly the Bishops, toward LGBT issues, progress in this direction has been slow and I, personally, have come to accept that any ecclesial or doctrinal changes in my lifetime are unlikely.

    Until recently, I felt the reason for the resistance to change rested with the attitude of the pre-Vatican II hierarchy and those practicing laity of their generation, and mine as well. But many Bishops are now speaking out and following Pope Francis’s guidance. And I personally know many clergy and some Bishops on both sides of the issue. So there is reason to believe that change will occur.

    Despite Pope Francis’s guidance and openness and His efforts to ensure authentic progress by man and society, there are still those episcopal appointments prior to Pope Francis that have, as Theologian Massimo Faggioli has stated, “recast the US episcopate in the image of the ‘cultural warrior.'” I strongly share Faggioli’s concerns that during the last thirty years “far-right” Catholic groups have emerged and contributed to the vicious rhetoric toward LGBT equality. Unfortunately, these far-right groups have assumed a “doctrinal watchdog” posture in support of those Bishops like Bishop Jugis.

    Most disturbing is that these “cyber-militants”, as labeled by Faggioli, exist in every parish and are influential in Church ministries and activities and are appearing in Catholic social media. Faggioli infers that they are beginning to call the shots, and they oppose doctrinal change.. This is troubling because it runs counter to what Pope Francis has been advocating for more dialogue and inclusiveness. I am embarrassed when I am sitting next to a non-Catholic friend whom I have taken to a Catholic men’s group event, to hear from the podium “only Catholics are in Heaven!”

    My worry now is not only the reluctant Bishops and clergy, but with the right-wing critics that are promoting censorship and squashing dialogue. These worries are compounded by some of the negative responses to Fr. James Martin’s book, “Building a Bridge” and the recent cancellation of his invited lectures. President John Petillo of Sacred Heart University has eloquently expressed, in an essay for the Huffington Post, being perturbed of the harmful rhetoric of these far-right groups and how their hostility is a smear of the First Amendment. Eventually the Pre Vatican II bishops and laity will be gone, but what is troubling to me is that these right-wing groups will remain and be influential in the Catholic Church. I just read where a second U.S. diocese has suggested Catholic funerals be denied to people in same-gender civil marriages. It is frightening to imagine how much influence these “far-right, cultural warriors” are influencing diocesan and pastoral directives. I have to pray that the Holy Spirit will prevail, hopefully in my lifetime.


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