Judges seem sympathetic to school’s religious freedom appeal
Circuit court panel weighs school’s right to fire a teacher based on religious values
On Wednesday, a three-judge panel in Richmond, Va., for the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments regarding Charlotte Catholic High School’s appeal to dismiss a lawsuit by a former substitute English and drama teacher. In 2014, the school did not renew Lonnie Billard’s contract after he announced his plans on Facebook to marry his male partner, just weeks following the state’s legalization of same-sex marriage. While the judges sounded sympathetic toward the school, they also debated which religious protections apply to the case.
The school is appealing a lower court’s previous ruling in 2021, when U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn Jr. ruled against the school, saying the firing was not legal on the basis of sexual discrimination.
The case centers on the “common sense principle” on whether a religious organization has the freedom to ask its employees to uphold religious values in word and deed, said Luke Goodrich, an attorney for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents the school.
In his oral arguments, Goodrich pointed to the religious organization exemptions in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which protects employees and job applicants from employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. The judges asked Goodrich why he leaned into Title VII rather than the ministerial exception doctrine, a First Amendment-derived principle which protects religious organizations’ internal decisions on who to employ from second-guessing by courts.
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 Roman Catholic elementary schools in California. The teachers had filed employment discrimination claims, but the justices reasoned both performed “vital religious duties” in their teaching, so they fell under church autonomy doctrines.
Judge Pamela Harris told Goodrich that “none of the tools you’re giving us” get at the heart of the case. “They are all much broader than that. The thing that gets at that problem is the ministerial exception. So I feel like I’m being kind of boxed into sort of a fake case here,” she said.
She expressed concern that his argument could potentially enable religious schools to hire or fire people on the basis of gender or race.
Goodrich, however, told me that it’s up to the court to decide which law to base the ruling on. “So you have a whole bunch of different legal protections for religious freedom, and the thing about this case is like this case falls right in the heartland of religious freedom and so multiple possible protections apply,” he said.
Billard’s lawyer, Joshua Block of the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBTQ and HIV Project, argued that the school’s decision to fire Billard can’t be based on ecclesiastical or religious legal protections because his job had no religious function.
But the judges brought up that the Catholic school has demonstrated that the conduct of the teacher is as important to the school as the material they teach.
Block also expressed concern that this ruling against Billard could negatively affect religious workers’ rights across the country. More than 1.1 million people work for religious organizations according to the research site Data USA.
Goodrich countered that a ruling in favor of the school preserves the “status quo” and affirms decades’ worth of precedents and laws protecting religious organizations. A ruling against the school would be the “first of its kind in the country at the appellate level,” Goodrich said. He warned that such a ruling “would threaten religious organizations … with potentially massive liability anytime they let go of an employee who has violated their core religious teachings on marriage and sexuality.”
In prior decades, cases like this weren’t brought to courts, Goodrich explained. But in its 2020 Bostock v. Clayton County decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sexual orientation and gender identity fall under federal laws protecting employees from discrimination.
Bostock “opened the floodgates” to lawsuits regarding gender and sexuality against religious organizations, Goodrich said. While no case about this has reached the Supreme Court, it’s likely one will.