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.
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