Ecumenical Group Files Amicus Brief Supporting Fired Gay Church Worker’s Lawsuit

Lonnie Billard and husband Richard Donham

A group of Protestant churches in North Carolina has filed an amicus brief supporting a gay plaintiff’s Title VII claim against the Catholic school that fired him in 2014, according to Law360.

Lonnie Billard, who taught drama and English at Charlotte Catholic High School for over fifteen years, and was the recipient of the teacher of the year award at the school in 2012, was fired from his job as a long-term substitute in 2014, after announcing his marriage to his partner, Richard, on Facebook.

After the firing, Billard sued his employer in the lawsuit Billard v. Charlotte Catholic High School, Mecklenburg Area Catholic Schools, & Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte. A district court initially ruled in favor of Billard under a Title VII claim, which protects people from discrimination on the basis of gender. The defendants argued that they were exempt from non-discrimination law due to their status as religious entities. 

According to Crux, the district court reasoned that the decision to fire Billiard was not protected by religious exemption.The basis for this ruling was the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, which extended Title VII protections to LGBTQ+ people.

Billard’s discrimination case is now before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. In the most recent development, an ecumenical coalition led by the North Carolina Council of Churches filed an amicus brief in December that argued in favor of Billard. The forty-two page brief contests the logic offered by the defendants that religious organizations have a constitutional right to discriminate against LGBTQ+ employees in non-ministerial roles:

“We specifically reject the argument from the diocese and its amici that forbidding religious bodies from discriminating in the employment of nonministers burdens their free exercise of religion.”

The brief argued that non-discrimination exemptions for religious groups should only function as a manner of ensuring that churches and religious schools can hire people classified as ministers who profess the faith of the organization. Those hired to teach non-religious subjects, as Billard did, are not ministers and therefore should not be allowed to be discriminated against due to their race, gender, or sexual orientation. The brief stated:

“‘Wayward nonministers cannot lead the congregation away from the faith. ‘We do not need complete freedom to hire and fire our nonministers.’”

In addition to the North Carolina Council of Churches, seventeen states also published a separate amicus brief in favor of Billard, citing their interest in preventing employment discrimination at a federal level. If Billard wins again in the appeals court, the case could be appealed yet again to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Robert Shine, associate director of New Ways Ministry, commented:

“A way forward which ensures LGBTQ+ people’s rights are protected while affording religious organizations freedom to live out their mission is entirely possible. Catholic church leaders in this case could learn from the coalition of Protestant churches about a better understanding of how such issues interface when it comes to employment law. Unfortunately, Catholic officials in Lonnie Billard’s case and those of other LGBTQ+ church workers seem unwilling find compromise.”

Andru Zodrow (he/him), New Ways Ministry, January 6, 2022

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