National News

Federal Court Rules in Favor of Diocese in Case Filed by Fired Gay Teacher

Charlotte Catholic High School (Photo: Becket)

PROSPECT HEIGHTS — In a reversal of a 2021 decision, a federal appeals court has ruled that a Catholic school in the Diocese of Charlotte, North Carolina, was justified in firing a substitute teacher over his same-sex relationship.

Lonnie Billard, the teacher, sued Charlotte Catholic High School and the Diocese of Charlotte in 2017 for firing him from his teaching position after the school found out about his wedding to another man, which he posted about on Facebook.

In September 2021, U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn sided with Billard, ruling that Charlotte Catholic High School and the Diocese of Charlotte violated his constitutional rights — a decision the school and diocese appealed. On May 8, the appeal was successful.

“We conclude that because Billard played a vital role as a messenger of CCHS’s faith, he falls under the ministerial exception to Title VII,” Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Pamela Harris stated in her ruling. “Accordingly, we reverse the district court’s order with instructions to enter judgment for CCHS.”

Billard has 14 days to ask the Fourth Circuit to rehear his case, or 90 days to appeal to the Supreme Court.

Billard taught English and drama at Charlotte Catholic High School for more than a decade before eventually transitioning to a role as a regular substitute, typically working more than a dozen weeks per year. However, Billard was let go from his position in 2014 after the school discovered the Facebook post he made about his upcoming wedding.

According to the original lawsuit, soon after the firing, then-Diocese of Charlotte spokesperson David Hains said that Billard was let go for “going on Facebook, entering into a same-sex relationship, and saying it in a very public way that he not does not agree with the teachings of the Catholic Church.”

Billard eventually sued in 2017. His lawyers argued that his firing violated federal employment law. Specifically, the prohibitions against sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. At the time, Billard said in a statement that he didn’t believe his commitment to his husband “has any bearing on [his] work in the classroom.”

Then, after the 2021 decision in his favor, Billard said in a statement that he had a “sense of relief and a sense of vindication,” and that the decision “validates that [he] did nothing wrong by being a gay man.”

Lawyers for Billard did not respond to a Tablet request for comment on the May 8 decision.

Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, which represents the diocese in the case, said that the May 8 decision is a victory for all people who cherish freedom of religion.

“The Supreme Court has been crystal clear on this issue: Catholic schools have the freedom to choose teachers who fully support Catholic teaching,” Goodrich said in a May 8 statement. “This is a victory for people of all faiths who cherish the freedom to pass on their faith to the next generation.”

Allana-Rae Ramkissoon, an assistant superintendent of schools in the Diocese of Charlotte, said that it’s important for children who attend diocesan schools to get a faithful Catholic education.

“Many of our parents work long hours and make significant sacrifices so their children can attend our schools and receive a faithful Catholic education,” Ramkissoon said in a May 8 statement. “That’s because we inspire our students not only to harness the lessons and tools they need to thrive, but to cherish their faith as a precious gift from God.”