WORK WITH US
District Court Found Religious School Liable For Sex Discrimination For Terminating Teacher After Learning He Intended To Marry Person Of The Same Sex
Lonnie Billard was employed as a substitute and full-time teacher with Charlotte Catholic High School (School), a school serving grades 9-12 in the Charlotte, North Carolina area. The School is part of a regional system of Catholic schools and is affiliated with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte. Billard began his employment at the School in 2000 as a substitute teacher, taught full time as an English teacher from 2001 until 2002, taught as a full time drama teacher from 2002 until 2012, and, after retiring, taught as a substitute teacher from 2012 until 2014. Billard did not teach religious classes. During his employment, Billard received positive work evaluations, won two teaching awards, and was the only teacher nominated for the Charlotte Catholic Teacher of the Year every year since the inception of the award.
Billard was married to a woman for about 24 years until their divorce in 2002. In 2002, he moved in with his partner, Richard Donham. Billard brought Donham to various School events over the years, Donham served as a substitute teacher at the School (including for Billard’s classes), and Billard sometimes answered the phone at the couple’s home when the School would call Donham to offer him substitute teaching assignments. However, it was disputed whether School administrators were aware that Billard and Donham were in a homosexual relationship any time prior to October 2014.
After same sex marriage became legal in North Carolina in 2014, Billard announced his engagement to Donham in an October 2014 Facebook post. Employees and parents associated with the School who were friends with Billard on Facebook saw the post, and news of Billard’s engagement to Donham reached the School’s chaplain and members of the administration. After discussions, the School decided that Billard could no longer serve as a substitute at the School because of his engagement to Donham. Thereafter, the School stopped offering Billard substitute teaching assignments.
After not hearing from the School for about two months, Billard contacted the School expressing his confusion as to why he had not been offered any substitute teaching assignments. The Assistant Principal told Billard that he could no longer work at the School because he “announced his intention to marry a person of the same sex.”
Billard filed a lawsuit against the School alleging a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), which makes it illegal for an employer to fail or refuse to hire or discharge any person, or to discriminate against a person, with respect to their race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The Supreme Court’s landmark 2020 decision in Bostock v. Clayton County held that discrimination against someone for being homosexual constitutes discrimination based on sex under Title VII.
In response to Billard’s claim, the School defended its decision not to offer Billard substitute teaching assignments by claiming protections under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the First Amendment, the church autonomy doctrine, and Sections 702 and 703 exemptions under Title VII. The School stipulated away its ministerial exception defense.
The court first analyzed whether the School’s termination of Billard was the result, at least in part, of impermissible sex discrimination under Title VII, and then analyzed each of the School’s defenses.
The School argued that its decision to end Billard’s employment with the School was not because he was gay, but was, instead, because by publically announcing his intention to marry a person of the same sex, he was engaging in “advocacy” against the Catholic Church’s beliefs that marriage should be between a man and a woman and human sexual expression belongs to a husband and wife alone. The School contended that it would have fired a female or heterosexual employee for similarly advocating against the Catholic Church’s beliefs. The School, however, conceded that if a straight teacher spoke positively about same-sex marriage, the teacher would have only received a reprimand and/or been asked to speak with a priest.
Billard countered that if he had been a female employee announcing her engagement to a man on Facebook, the School would not have characterized the action as “advocacy.” Billard asserted that his engagement announcement was only considered advocacy because of his sexual orientation.
The court held that the evidence supported classic sexual discrimination in violation of Title VII because Billard’s sex, as a male, was the “but-for” cause of the School’s decision to fire him (i.e., “but-for” Billard’s sex, the School would not have terminated him). The court agreed that Billard’s engagement announcement was only considered advocacy against the Catholic Church’s beliefs because of his sex, and a female employee announcing her engagement to a man would not have been considered “advocacy” and would have not resulted in her termination. The court further found that Billard received a harsher punishment for announcing his engagement to same sex partner than he would have if he had been a straight person posting positive views of same-sex marriage in a social media post.
Having determined that the School’s actions constituted sex discrimination under Title VII, the court analyzed each of the School’s defenses. The School argued that it qualify for religious exemptions under Section 702(a) and 703(e) of Title VII, which exempt religious institutions from suits for religious discrimination. The court disagreed with the School, holding that Sections 702 and 703 do not permit race, sex, or national origin discrimination, but only to employment decisions based on religious preferences.
The Court also rejected the School’s defense that the church autonomy doctrine provides broader protection than the ministerial exception, and that the ministerial exceptions is one application of the broader church autonomy doctrine. Rather, the church autonomy doctrine is narrow in the sense that it prevents courts from deciding purely spiritual or ecclesiastical questions. As a result, the ministerial exception was created to demarcate the line where a religious organization’s First Amendment rights outweigh the government’s interest in eradicating employment discrimination.
The court also held that that the ministerial exception likely cannot be waived, and analyzed whether Billard was a ministerial employee under the exception. The 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 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 court rejected the School’s argument that it is exempt from Billard’s sex discrimination claim under RFRA. RFRA does not apply to lawsuits between private parties; rather, the plain text of the statute applies to government action burdening a party’s free exercise of religion. The court also rejected the School’s argument that the First Amendment freedom of association protects its right to not affiliate with Billard. The court held that the First Amendment freedom of association does not allow a religious institution to circumvent the prohibition against employment discrimination under Title VII. Additionally, hiring paid employees is a commercial activity, and the freedom of expression does not apply in the employment context.
Based on the foregoing, the trial court held that the School is liable for sex discrimination under Title VII.
Billard v. Charlotte Catholic High Sch. (W.D.N.C. September 3, 2021) 2021 WL 4037431 (slip opinion).
The defendant in this case attempted to argue many First Amendment defenses, including the ministerial exception. The ministerial exception prohibits Title VII claims and other employment discrimination laws relating to the employment relationship between religious organizations and their “ministers.” The court held that the ministerial exception did not apply in this case because the plaintiff taught purely secular subjects and was not tasked with carrying out the mission of the Catholic Church. Therefore, the plaintiff was not a “minister” of the School.