CHARLOTTE, N.C. (CN) - Lonnie Billard, a teacher at Charlotte Catholic High School, announced on Facebook in 2014 that he was marrying his longtime partner, Richard Donham. Shortly after, his employer, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte, fired him.
His termination became the subject of a legal debate that has persisted since 2017, when Billard sued the Diocese for sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. After a district court ruled in Billard's favor, the case landed on Wednesday before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
In its appeal, the Diocese argued Billard's marriage was a "public rejection of Catholic teaching" that "disqualified him from serving as a Catholic teacher." The fundamental issue at hand, the Catholic organization says, is whether religious schools are able to require that their teachers "support their core religious practices."
Judges on Wednesday's panel suggested the Diocese's reading of the religious exemption in Title VII is too broad. While the Diocese raised a legitimate question over whether its teachers should promote Catholic values, an argument under the "ministerial exception" to Title VII may be more appropriate.
That exception protects religious organizations from discrimination claims in cases involving "ministers." Under that argument, the Diocese could be protected from sex discrimination claims if it successfully argued that Billard, in his capacity as a teacher, was acting as a minister of the Diocese.
In Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, the U.S. Supreme Court suggested teachers at Catholic schools could, at least in some cases, be considered ministers.
However, the Diocese's legal team previously stipulated that it would not make an argument of ministerial exception. That was before the 2020 Supreme Court ruling, and was intended to limit the scope of discovery, said the Diocese's attorney Luke Goodrich of Becket Law.
"I wasn't counsel below, I probably wouldn't have entered that stipulation, but we're abiding by the stipulation. I don't see a way that we can get around that," Goodrich told the court on Wednesday.
"Our position is that you wouldn't have to reach the ministerial exception in this case because you could first address Title VII's religious exception, the plain text of which protects the conduct here."
U.S. Circuit Judge Paul Niemeyer, a George W. Bush appointee, said by ignoring the ministerial exception, Goodrich was "leaving behind a very makeable argument."
And U.S. Circuit Judge Pamela Harris, a Barack Obama appointee, worried the Diocese's reading of the Title VII religious exemption could justify future firings of any non-ministerial worker - custodians or lunch staff, for instance - for any reason justified by sincere religious beliefs.
Goodrich argued that other laws protect employees and draw clear lines between religious concerns about homosexuality and other forms of discrimination, like race or national origin.
Billard's attorney, Joshua Block of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he'd rather the court lift the stipulation and rule on the ministerial exception than accept the Diocese's reading of Title VII, which he argued "could have collateral consequences that could be very hard to anticipate."
"I think the court seemed to understand how sweeping the defendants' arguments were, and how if the court accepted those arguments it would have really far-reaching consequences for all sorts of employees at all sorts of religious organizations," Block told Courthouse News on Wednesday.
If the case were to be decided on the ministerial exception, then the court would have to rule on whether Billard qualified as a "minister" - in other words, whether he was employed to promote the Catholic faith's teachings.
Block noted that Billard taught secular subjects, and secular employees are often asked to refrain from teaching religious doctrine in the classroom. However, as Goodrich noted, Billard was required to include prayer in the classroom and was asked to "model the Catholic faith."
Billard worked at Charlotte Catholic High School from 2001 to 2012, mostly as a drama teacher. After his retirement in 2012, he continued to work as a substitute teacher, until his 2014 Facebook announcement that he was marrying Donham.
Before the post, Billard was open about his relationship, his attorneys argued in a brief. But the Diocese has claimed no one in the administration was aware of it, and that Billard had acknowledged that the Diocese would likely be displeased with his marriage announcement.
In 2021 a district court judge sided with Billard, finding the Diocese of Charlotte was not covered by a religious exemption to Title VII when it fired him.
Among other things, the Diocese disputes the district court's ruling that the religious exemption to Title VII applies only in cases of religious discrimination, not claims of sex discrimination. It argues that Title VII defines "religion" to include not just belief, but also observance and practice.
"Religious schools exist to help parents educate their children in their faith," Goodrich in a statement to Courthouse News after Wednesday's arguments. "That's why the Supreme Court has consistently upheld the freedom of religious schools to ask those who carry out their ministries to support their beliefs. We're optimistic that the court will follow controlling precedent and uphold the freedom of Catholic schools and parents to continue passing on the faith."
The panel, which also included U.S. Circuit Judge Robert Bruce King, a Bill Clinton appointee, ended Wednesday's hearing without a ruling.
Source: Courthouse News Service