Court Upholds Catholic School’s Decision To Terminate Gay Teacher’s Employment

CATEGORY: Private Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education
DATE: May 29, 2024

Charlotte Catholic High School is part of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte.  The School offers secular and religious classes, but religion infuses daily life at the School.  For example, the School’s mission statement describes the School as a community centered in the Roman Catholic faith and the School’s statement of beliefs states that individuals should model and integrate the teachings of Jesus in all areas of conduct.  The Diocese’s mission includes language that the people are called to grow into a community of praise, worship, and witness.  Teachers play a critical role in pursuing those missions—the School expects teachers to begin class with a short prayer, teachers are expected to accompany students to all-school mass, and teachers are evaluated on the “catholicity” of their classroom environment and their ability to teach their subjects in a manner agreeable with Catholic thought.

Although employees are not required to be Catholic, employees are expected to conform to Catholic teachings, which includes a prohibition on engaging in or advocating for conduct contrary to the moral tenets of Catholic faith, including the Catholic Church’s rejection of same-sex marriage.

Lonnie Billard began working at the School in 2001 and held a variety of roles, including a substitute teacher, an English teacher, and a drama teacher.  In his role, Billard took intentional steps to incorporate religion into his teaching.

Billard is also gay.  He met his now-husband in 2000, and in 2014, shortly after same-sex marriage was legalized in North Carolina, he posted on Facebook that he and his partner were engaged to be married.  When the School learned of Billard’s engagement, it opted not to invite him back as a teacher, reasoning that Billard’s plan to marry a same-sex partner violated Diocese policy against engaging in conduct contrary to the moral teachings of the Catholic faith.

Billard sued under Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination in employment.  Both parties filed motions for summary judgment.  The trial court granted Billard’s motion for summary judgment and denied the School’s motion for summary judgment.  The trial court found that Billard was fired because of his plans to marry his same-sex partner—not, as the School argued, solely because Billard was advocating for views that went against the Catholic Church’s beliefs.  The trial court concluded that this case amounted to classic sex discrimination.

The trial court rejected the School’s multiple affirmative defenses.  Among these defenses was the ministerial exception, which is rooted in the First Amendment, and bars the government from interfering with ministerial employment decisions.  The trial court found that Billard was primarily a substitute teacher of English and drama, which were purely secular subjects, and he was not required to be Catholic to be a substitute teacher.  Additionally, the trial court found that Billard did not have to undergo religious training and did not hold himself to be a minister of the Church.  Therefore, Billard was not a ministerial employee.

The School appealed and argued that the ministerial exception should apply.  The Court of Appeals agreed and concluded that the School entrusted Billard with vital religious duties, making him a messenger of faith and placing him within the ministerial exception.

The Court of Appeals considered the School’s educational mission, centered on the Roman Catholic faith, and its statement of beliefs calling on all community members to model and integrate the teachings of Jesus in all areas of conduct.  Billard’s employment was evaluated based on the degree to which he integrated faith throughout his classes, and Billard went out of his way to meet those expectations, coordinating with religion teachers in setting his curriculum.  Even though Billard was not tasked with regular religious instruction as an English and drama teacher, his duties still included conforming his instruction to Christian thought and providing a classroom consistent with Catholicism.  There were also rare occasions where Billard substitute taught in religion classes.  Finally, the Court of Appeals considered Billard’s role as a teacher.  Educating young people in their faith and training them to live their faith are responsibilities at the core of religious schools.

The Court of Appeals determined that Billard was subject to the ministerial exception and reversed the trial court’s ruling.

Note:  LCW reported on this case previously.  The Court of Appeal’s decision to reverse the trial court’s ruling in this case highlights the fact-specific analysis that courts will undertake in determining whether the ministerial exception applies to an employee. 

Billard v. Charlotte Catholic High Sch. (4th Cir. 2024) 2024 U.S. App. LEXIS 11224.

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