Catholic school can legally fire gay teacher, court finds

On May 8, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with a North Carolina Catholic high school that had terminated a gay teacher, Lonnie Billard, who announced plans to marry his partner.

This decision reverses a previous ruling that found Charlotte Catholic High School and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte in violation of federal employment protections against sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. 

The appeals court held that the firing did not violate federal workplace protections for LGBTQ workers, emphasizing the "ministerial exception" supported by the First Amendment.

Understanding the "ministerial exception"

The "ministerial exception to Title VII" is a legal doctrine that allows religious organizations to make employment decisions without interference from civil authorities to maintain the integrity of their religious teachings. 

In this case, the court concluded that Billard's role required him to embody the school's faith values, placing him within the scope of this exception. Despite his secular teaching duties, the court noted that Billard's position involved imparting a Catholic perspective on the curriculum, vital to the school's religious mission.

Implications of the ruling

This ruling marks a departure from other recent decisions by the Fourth Circuit that have expanded protections for LGBTQ individuals, including rulings against exclusionary state health insurance policies and in support of a transgender athlete. The court's decision underscores the tension between religious freedom and anti-discrimination protections, highlighting the complexities of applying the ministerial exception in employment law.

Circuit Judge Pamela Harris, in the majority opinion, explained that even seemingly secular tasks like teaching English and drama can have religious significance under the ministerial exception. 

This perspective was crucial in deeming Billard's dismissal as lawful, emphasizing the school's expectation that all teaching roles should support its religious mission.

"The record makes clear that (Charlotte Catholic) considered it "vital" to its religious mission that its teachers bring a Catholic perspective to bear on Shakespeare as well as on the Bible," wrote Harris, who was nominated to the bench by then-President Barack Obama. "Our court has recognized before that seemingly secular tasks like the teaching of English and drama may be so imbued with religious significance that they implicate the ministerial exception."

"We conclude that the school entrusted Billard with ‘vital religious duties,’ making him a ‘messenger’ of its faith and placing him within the ministerial exception," Harris continued in the majority decision.

Reaction to the court's decision

The appeals court's decision represents a significant shift from its previous rulings that have supported LGBTQ rights, such as recent judgments declaring that state health insurance plans in North Carolina and West Virginia had unlawfully excluded gender-affirming care, and another ruling that upheld the rights of a young transgender athlete in West Virginia to participate in school sports, which had been challenged under state law.

The American Civil Liberties Union and a Charlotte law firm representing Billard expressed disappointment with the court's decision, describing it as "heartbreaking" for an educator who sought to serve without concealing his identity. 

They warned that this ruling could broaden the scope for employers to dismiss employees for discriminatory reasons under the guise of religious freedom.

Billard, who began his tenure at the school in 2001 and has been with his now-husband since 2000, filed the lawsuit in 2017 after his dismissal post the legalization of same-sex marriage in North Carolina in 2014.