A North Carolina gay teacher who was fired from his job as a substitute at a Catholic high school has won his sex discrimination case in fedral court.
The Daily Mail reported:
“U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn ruled Friday that Charlotte Catholic High School and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Charlotte violated Lonnie Billard’s federal protections against against sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
Cogburn granted summary judgment to Billard, 73, and said a trial must still be held to determine appropriate damages for him. He and Richard Donham have been married for six years.”
[Editor’s note: Charlotte is a diocese, not an archdiocese, as it was reported in several news stories.]
CBS News reported on statement Billard released expressing his satisfaction with the decision:
“After all this time, I have a sense of relief and a sense of vindication. I wish I could have remained teaching all this time. Today’s decision validates that I did nothing wrong by being a gay man.”
The teacher had been fired in 2014, after he posted news of his marriage on social media. He had been a substitute teacher for English and drama at the school for over ten years, and in 2012 had received the Teacher of the Year Award.
Crux reported on the legal reasoning of the judge’s decision:
“The defendants [the school and the archdiocese] said that they fired Billard not because he was gay, but rather because ‘he engaged in “advocacy” that went against the Catholic Church’s beliefs’ when he publicly announced he was marrying another man, the ruling said.
“But Cogburn ruled that the school’s action didn’t fit into exemptions to labor law that give religious institutions leeway to require certain employees to adhere to religious teachings, nor was the school’s action protected by constitutional rights to religious freedom.
“ ‘Plaintiff is a lay employee, who comes onto the campus of a religious school for the limited purpose of teaching secular classes, with no mandate to inculcate students with Catholic teachings,’ Cogburn wrote.”
WCNC.com reported the statement the Charlotte Diocese released on the ruling:
“We respectfully disagree with the district court’s decision and are considering next steps. 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. 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.”
The Advocate‘s report noted the historic nature of this case for LGBTQ equality:
” ‘Today’s decision is one of the first applications of the Supreme Court’s ban on sex discrimination to employees of private religious schools,’ said Irena Como, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, in a press release. The ACLU was one of the groups representing Billard. ‘The court sent a clear message that Charlotte Catholic violated Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination when it fired Mr. Billard for announcing his engagement to his same-sex partner.’ In 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Bostock v. Clayton County that workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is sex discrimination under Title VII.”
Como went on to say:
“Religious schools have the right to decide who will perform religious functions or teach religious doctrine, but when they hire employees for secular jobs they must comply with Title VII and cannot discriminate based on sexual orientation.”
To read the history of Lonnie Billard’s firing, click here.
This case is potentially a great victory for those concerned with the terrible scourge of LGBTQ people being fired from Catholic institutions. Yet, it is a shame that Catholic leaders and administrators have to be forced by law to respect the dignity and equality of LGBTQ people. Instead of narrowing the perspective on who is suitable to be a part of the Catholic Church or employed by the Catholic Church, leaders should look to broadening their vision to benefit from the gifts that all people bring.
—Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, September 13, 2021