Judge: Catholic high school wrongly fired gay teacher
Court declines to extend religious liberty protections
Another federal court grappled with how much freedom religious organizations have to hire and fire people. It ultimately ruled against a Catholic high school that fired a teacher who violated church teaching by entering into a same-sex marriage.
In a 54-page opinion on Sept. 3, U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn Jr. rejected Charlotte Catholic High School’s claim that the ministerial exception allowed it to fire Lonnie Billard. The First Amendment–derived defense protects churches and religious organizations’ employment decisions regarding employees serving vital religious functions.
Cogburn also rejected the school’s argument that the Title VII right to fire an employee for not being Catholic includes being able to fire him for not following Catholic teaching. “It is clear that religious exemptions do not let religious organizations facially discriminate based on sex,” he wrote.
Billard, who had worked as a full-time or substitute English or drama teacher at the school since 2000, moved in with his partner Richard Donham in 2002. They married after North Carolina legalized same-sex marriage in 2014. The school did not renew Billard’s contract after he announced his engagement on Facebook in October 2014. The school does not require all its teachers to be Catholic.
Becket attorney Luke Goodrich criticized the court’s narrow construction of both the ministerial exception and other religious protections: “Federal statutes and the Constitution protect the right of religious groups to form communities around shared beliefs and practices.”
Goodrich said the decision should prompt churches and religious schools and nonprofits to consider their own standards. “When religious groups think about forming, organizing, shepherding, and governing their religious communities, there are a lot of practices they can engage in that both strengthen their witness and reduce the likelihood of litigation,” he said. Organizations should be clear about their religious requirements, communicate them well, and cultivate support for their mission, he added.
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