A former Catholic school teacher who was fired for being gay, then sued the school, just won a major court decision.
Understanding how he won requires some backstory. From 2001-2012, Lonnie Billard had been an English and drama teacher at Charlotte Catholic High School in North Carolina. He was even named the school’s “Teacher of the Year” in 2012. The devout Catholic even worked as a substitute teacher at the same school for the three years after that.
But things took a turn when Billard, a gay man who had been with his partner for more than a decade, announced their engagement. It didn’t take long for the school to fire him since, of course, the Catholic Church opposes marriage equality. What shocked me at the time was that Billard reacted by walking away from Catholicism altogether. He said at the time, “I am not going to give my time, my talent, or my treasure to a bigoted organization.” As much as I appreciated that reaction at the time, it’s not like the Church’s actions were a surprise. Was Billard just now discovering the Church was anti-LGBTQ? What took so long?!
But he didn’t stop there. In May of 2015, he also filed a sex discrimination lawsuit against the school, saying they violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The logic went like this: If a woman announced her engagement to a man, it wouldn’t have been a problem. But because he did the same thing as a man, the school had no right to fire him.
You might be thinking a private Catholic school has every right to fire teachers who don’t adhere to Catholic doctrine — it’s happened so many times before — and U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn Jr. recognized that as well. But this, he said, was not a clear cut case. That seems to be because the school’s lawyers did everything wrong.
For example, the school claimed Billard engaged in LGBTQ “advocacy” when he said he was getting married. But according to Cogburn’s ruling, that’s not true:
Defendants cannot escape Title VII liability by recharacterizing Plaintiff’s announcement of his engagement as “advocacy.” If Plaintiff were a woman who posted on Facebook that she was getting married to her husband, Defendants would not have interpreted her announcement as “advocacy” for or against the Catholic Church. Plaintiff’s engagement was only considered advocacy because of his sex.
Even if this Court were satisfied that Plaintiff’s action was advocacy, Plaintiff would still prevail on his sex discrimination claim because he received a harsher punishment than if he had simply expressed positive views of same-sex marriage as a straight person. Defendants admit that while they fired Plaintiff for his actions, they would only have reprimanded a straight teacher who spoke positively about same-sex marriage.
So the school mishandled the case to begin with. Making matters worse for them, Billard, a substitute English and drama teacher, wasn’t being paid to teach Catholic doctrine or prepare students “for participation in Catholic worship services.” That means the school can’t hold him to the same religious standards they expect from other teachers:
… 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. Indeed, Defendants do not require Plaintiff to be Catholic, and they even explicitly encourage him and other teachers of non-religious subjects to refrain from teaching religious topics in their classrooms… When students had emotional or spiritual questions outside his disciplines of drama and English, Plaintiff was required to refer those students to the proper individual to handle them, such as by referring a student having a hard time at home to the counseling department… As such, while retaining Plaintiff implicates Defendants’ expressive mission, it does not significantly do so.
In short, the Catholic school got this wrong on every turn, and they had no legal right to fire a teacher for announcing his same-sex marriage. Billard has won his case and a trial will now be held to determine how much money the school owes him.
WCNC has a statement from the Diocese:
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.
They haven’t announced an appeal, though the current makeup of the Supreme Court gives them every incentive to fight this. If they appealed, though, we’re talking about a hell of a lot of money being spent to defend their behavior. They could theoretically end up with a pyrrhic legal victory that leaves their reputation in shambles.
After all, right now, Charlotte Catholic High School is known as a place where even the best teachers can be fired for the crime of falling in love and getting married. And the school’s only defense of that behavior? “We’re Catholic and anti-gay bigotry is baked into our faith, therefore we should be able to treat employees like shit.” It’s a weird hill to die on.
For now, though, Billard is thrilled with the outcome:
“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,” said Lonnie Billard, plaintiff in Billard v. Charlotte Catholic High School. “Today’s decision validates that I did nothing wrong by being a gay man.”
An ACLU attorney added that while Catholic schools have every right to set religious rules for employees performing religious functions, those who perform secular jobs aren’t bound by those same limitations.
(Screenshot via YouTube)