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Catholic school appeals ruling over gay teacher’s firing

Case tests limits of religious institutions’ autonomy in employment decisions


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Catholic school appeals ruling over gay teacher’s firing

A Charlotte, N.C., Catholic high school has appealed a case it lost over its firing of a gay substitute teacher.

Charlotte Catholic High School did not renew former substitute English and drama teacher Lonnie Billard’s contract in 2014 after he announced his engagement to another man. Luke Goodrich, an attorney with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said the case could help clarify the somewhat uncharted area of church (or religious) autonomy. Broadly defined, the First Amendment–derived doctrine of church autonomy protects the “ability to form religious communities around shared beliefs and practices” without governmental interference, he said.

Yet U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn didn’t accept the school’s argument that it was immune from liability for sex discrimination. In his 2021 ruling for Billard, Cogburn concluded that since the teacher taught secular subjects, he was not a “minister” that the school could fire for violating its standards of conduct by being in a same-sex marriage.

Nor could the school take refuge in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, Cogburn ruled, which exempts from liability institutions that fire employees based on religious reasons. The judge said that was because the school claimed it fired Billard not because he wasn’t Catholic, but because he publicly entered into a same-sex marriage.

“The question is, can the Catholic Church ask teachers at Catholic schools to support Catholic teaching?” Goodrich asked. He said the school has to be able to hold employees—even if not Catholic or even Christian—to standards of conduct derived from church teaching to maintain its integrity as a Roman Catholic institution.

In its July 2020 ruling in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, the Supreme Court applied the “ministerial exception” to uphold the firing of two elementary teachers at two Catholic elementary schools in California. The teachers had filed employment discrimination claims after the schools fired them. But the justices reasoned both performed “vital religious duties” in their teaching, so they fell under church autonomy doctrines.

Lael Weinberger, lecturer at Harvard Law School and author of a forthcoming law review article on church autonomy, said that the ministerial exception isn’t the only church autonomy protection. He argued the doctrine extends beyond the employment context to ecclesial governance, discipline, and beyond. Weinberger said its reach has grown in importance in the past 15 years given the “increasing distinctions between important commitments of religious communities … and the regulations that are coming through the regulatory state that they’re being subjected to.”

Thus far the Supreme Court has sidestepped opportunities to clarify religious institutions’ freedom—whether under the ministerial exception, the Title VII religious exemption, or otherwise. But Weinberger and Goodrich both said this case might give the court a chance to weigh in.

Last year, the court declined to reconsider an appeals court ruling that allowed a social work professor to proceed on her claim that the evangelical Gordon College in Massachusetts retaliated against her for advocating pro-LGBT views and opposing institutional standards on human sexuality. Yet four conservative judges in a concurring opinion questioned the court’s view of religious education and indicated that “in an appropriate future case, this court may be required to resolve this important question of religious liberty.”

Other cases involving church autonomy are percolating in lower courts. A federal appeals court will hear oral arguments on May 16 over whether a lower court was right to uphold an Indianapolis Catholic high school’s firing of a guidance counselor who violated church teaching by entering a same-sex relationship. That case raises issues similar to those in the Charlotte case.


Steve West

Steve is a reporter for WORLD. A graduate of World Journalism Institute, he worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor in Raleigh, N.C., where he resides with his wife.

@slntplanet

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