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Appeals court sides with Catholic school on firing gay teacher

Charlotte Catholic High School Becket Fund for Religious Liberty/Photo by Charlotte Catholic High School

Appeals court sides with Catholic school on firing gay teacher

A federal appeals court, in a Wednesday ruling, reaffirmed the right of religious schools to hire staff who uphold their religious beliefs. Teacher Lonnie Billard had worked at North Carolina’s Charlotte Catholic High School for over a decade when he announced his engagement to another man in 2014. Administrators dismissed Billard from teaching months after the engagement announcement, citing his failure to uphold Catholic principles by entering a same-sex marriage. Billard filed a discrimination lawsuit against the school and the local diocese, and a lower court ruled in his favor. However, Thursday’s federal ruling overturns that ruling. The appeals court cited the ministerial exception that protects the school from legally violating Title VII, the landmark civil rights law against employment discrimination.

What is the ministerial exception? The Supreme Court has previously ruled that the First Amendment safeguards the right of a religious organization to employ people who uphold the organization’s religious beliefs. The ministerial exception serves as a constitutionally-based guarantee keeping the government and courts from interfering with religion, according to guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The school entrusted Billard with vital religious duties, making him a messenger of its faith and placing him within the ministerial exception, Judge Pamela Harris wrote in the appeals court’s majority decision.

How has the ruling been received? This ruling is a win for people of all faiths who cherish the freedom to pass on their faith to the next generation, wrote Luke Goodrich, senior counsel at the nonprofit law firm representing the diocese. The American Civil Liberties Union represented Billard in the lawsuit and described the appeal ruling as “heartbreaking.” Every worker should be entitled to equal protection under the law, the group said.

What’s next? Billard has two weeks to ask the appeals court to rehear his case. He may also appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court within the next 90 days.

Dig deeper: Read Elizabeth Russell’s report in WORLD Magazine about a similar ruling for a Catholic school in Indianapolis.

Christina Grube

Christina Grube is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute.

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