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Appeals court upholds religious schools’ right to choose teachers

Majority says employment decisions on teachers shielded by “ministerial exception”

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Appeals court upholds religious schools’ right to choose teachers

A federal court ruled in favor of a Roman Catholic school in North Carolina on Wednesday, affirming the school’s constitutional right to choose teachers that uphold its religious beliefs. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals determined that even substitute teachers at religious schools serve in roles similar to ministers.

The recent ruling stems from Charlotte Catholic High School’s 2014 dismissal of former substitute English and drama teacher Lonnie Billard. The school did not renew Billard’s contract after he announced his plans on Facebook to enter into a same-sex marriage weeks after the state legalized it.

Billard sued the school for sex discrimination and, in 2021, U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn Jr. ruled in favor of the teacher.

Wednesday’s ruling reverses that order on the basis that Billard played a vital religious role at the school, an interpretation that shields the school’s decision on his firing from the court’s review because of a doctrine called the “ministerial exception.”

The First Amendment requires courts to “‘stay out’ of employment disputes involving ministers,” wrote Circuit Judge Pamela Harris, an Obama appointee, in the opinion joined by Paul V. Niemeyer, a Reagan appointee.

The ruling is “perhaps the broadest application of the ministerial exception by a court of appeals to date,” said Luke Goodrich, an attorney with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented the school. He said the decision means that the ministerial exception isn’t limited just to teachers who instruct religious courses. It now extends to all teachers at religious schools.

Billard served in a ministerial role because the school required all its teachers to “model and promote Catholic faith and morals,” so Billard served a “vital role as a messenger of [the school’s] faith,” the judges wrote. Billard began classes with prayer, took students to mass, and was evaluated on whether his lesson plans adhered to the Catholic faith.

“Billard may have been teaching Romeo and Juliet, but he was doing so after consultation with religious teachers to ensure that he was teaching through a faith-based lens,” the judges said.

Wednesday’s ruling bolsters the 2020 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, where the court applied the ministerial exception to uphold the firing of two elementary teachers at Catholic elementary schools in California.

Billard has the option to ask the full appeals court to rehear his case or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Goodrich said. However, Goodrich doesn’t anticipate the teacher will appeal, as this ruling lines up with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Our Lady of Guadalupe School.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Billard, said in a statement that the ruling is a “heartbreaking decision.”

“While today’s decision is narrowly tailored to Mr. Billard and the facts of his employment, it nonetheless threatens to encroach on that principle by widening the loopholes employers may use to fire people like Mr. Billard for openly discriminatory reasons,” the ACLU said.

While the 4th Circuit ruled against Billard through ministerial exception, the school had also contested it had a right to dismiss Billard through the religious exemption contained in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The school said Billard’s claim of sex discrimination was moot due to this exemption. Judges disagreed.

Judges expressed concern that if they ruled in favor of the school through Title VII, it would be a “wide-ranging” decision that could legalize firing on the grounds of “race and national-origin discrimination.” Their ministerial exception ruling is instead “narrowly tailored to Billard’s case and circumstances,” they wrote.

Circuit Judge Robert King, a Clinton appointee, dissented from the majority opinion and agreed with the school’s Title VII perspective. He did not address the majority’s argument that his interpretation could allow for further discrimination.

Two other cases like Billard’s have reached the courts of appeals, Goodrich said. In 2022 and 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit ruled in favor of Roncalli High School and the Archdiocese of Indianapolis after two guidance counselors sued the school for sex discrimination. Similarly to the 4th Circuit, the 7th Circuit said ministerial exception applied to the cases.

“These rulings reinforce, underscore, and strengthen the principle that religious organizations have freedom to choose employees who are carrying out their religious functions,” Goodrich said. “The government doesn’t get to interfere in that.”

Liz Lykins

Liz is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute.


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