Appeals court rules Catholic NC high school could fire teacher over same-sex marriage

A federal Appeals Court has ruled that Charlotte Catholic High School did not violate a teacher’s rights when it fired him for planning to marry his same-sex partner.

The decision Wednesday from the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a trial judge’s ruling favoring English and drama teacher Lonnie Billard.

Billard’s federal lawsuit argued that the school had engaged in sex discrimination banned by Title VII.

“We conclude that because Billard played a vital role as a messenger of CCHS’s faith, he falls under the ministerial exception to Title VII,” wrote Judge Pamela Harris for the court’s majority.

“Although CCHS offers separate secular and religious classes, religion infuses daily life at the school,” Harris wrote. “CCHS’s mission statement describes the school as ‘an educational community centered in the Roman Catholic faith which teaches individuals to serve as Christians in our changing world.’”

“CCHS’s teachers play a critical role in pursuing those missions,” Harris added. “CCHS expects its teachers to begin each class with a short prayer, led either by the teacher or the students, though it does not dictate the content of the prayer.”

“It requires its teachers to accompany students to all-school Mass, where they play a ‘supervisory,’ though not specifically religious, role. And CCHS evaluates its teachers – including teachers of non-religious subjects – on the ‘catholicity’ of their classroom environment, their ability to teach their subjects in a manner ‘agreeable with Catholic thought,’ their willingness to ‘[c]ontribut[e] by example to an atmosphere of faith commitment,’ and their aptitude in ‘implement[ing] the diocesan and school’s mission statements,’” according to the majority opinion.

“CCHS’s expectations of its teachers extend beyond the classroom,” Harris wrote. “It does not require all its employees to be Catholic. But, Catholic or not, it requires its employees to conform to Catholic teachings: CCHS prohibits employees from engaging in or advocating for conduct contrary to the moral tenets of the Catholic faith, including the Catholic Church’s rejection of same-sex marriage.”

Billard met his future husband in 2000. In 2014, after same-sex marriage became legal in North Carolina, he announced his engagement in a Facebook post. “When CCHS learned of Billard’s engagement, it opted not to invite him back as a teacher,” Harris wrote. “Billard’s plans to marry a same-sex partner, CCHS concluded, violated the Diocese’s policy against engaging in conduct contrary to the moral teachings of the Catholic faith.”

Judge Paul Niemeyer joined Harris’ opinion. Judge Robert King also would have ruled in favor of Charlotte Catholic High School without reaching the constitutional issue of the “ministerial exception.”

“[W]e should be deciding Billard’s sex discrimination claim solely on nonconstitutional grounds,” King wrote. “Put simply, I would dispose of Charlotte Catholic’s appeal by ruling only on Title VII’s religious exemption, in that a ‘straightforward reading’ of § 702 of Title VII bars Billard’s discrimination claim.”

King faulted the majority for addressing a constitutional issue when it could have decided the case based solely on the federal law.

“Rather than recognizing that Billard’s claim is statutorily barred, my friends turn immediately to the constitutional question — addressing only the ministerial exception of

the First Amendment,” King explained. “Although a deviation from the constitutional avoidance doctrine may be warranted in some rare circumstance, it is certainly not warranted in this situation, in that Charlotte Catholic and its lawyers have explicitly waived the ministerial exception.”

The post Appeals court rules Catholic NC high school could fire teacher over same-sex marriage first appeared on Carolina Journal.


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