A Catholic school teacher fired due to his same-gender marriage will have his discrimination lawsuit heard by a U.S. Court of Appeals soon.
In 2014, Lonnie Billard announced on Facebook that he would wed his partner, Rich Donham. His announcement occurred just two weeks after a federal court legalized marriage equality in North Carolina. Shortly after, Billard was terminated from his substitute teaching job at Charlotte Catholic High School due to being public about his gay identity and engagement.
Now, nearly a decade later, the former teacher’s sex discrimination lawsuit, Billard vs. the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte, will have a new hearing. The Charlotte Observer reported:
“In the coming months, Billard vs. the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte will get its most important public airing to date. It will take place in Richmond, Va., where the case will be heard by a three-judge panel from the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, the second most powerful court in the land.
“The court, which handles appeals from the Carolinas and four other states, had originally scheduled oral arguments for Billard last week. But they were delayed pending a Supreme Court ruling in a related case from Colorado, which is expected no later than June.”
The lawsuit was first filed against his former employer and the Diocese of Charlotte in 2017. In 2021, Billard won the case after U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn found that Billard’s dismissal violated a federal ban on anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination in the workplace. The diocese’s appeal of this decision now places the case before the Fourth Circuit.
The legal dispute has contributed to the nationwide debate over the role of non-discrimination legislation for employment at religious organizations. Especially when it comes to same-gender marriage and transgender rights, there is “longstanding friction” between religious institutions and the law. The “ministerial exception,” a legal doctrine that exempts religious institutions from non-discrimination laws if their employees have “clear religious responsibilities,” has been dominant.
At issue in the Billard case is how far that ministerial exception goes. According to the Observer:
“Billard’s attorneys, however, argue that Charlotte Catholic’s decision to remove their client from the classroom violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. They also say the Diocese’s arguments call for a “radical” reordering of a decades-old legal balance between religion and law that would shield almost all church personnel decisions from court scrutiny — even those involving secular employees such as Billard.
“In doing so, ACLU attorney Joshua Block says, the Diocese and other religious organizations are attempting to broaden the protections they already have to ‘completely rewrite the boundaries’ between secular employment law and religious interests.
“It’s not enough that they have the ministerial exception. It’s not enough that they can hire and fire without being sued for religious discrimination,’ says Block. ‘They want religious organizations to have the ability to make whatever employment decision they want as long as they can point to a religious justification. Basically, their entire secular workforces would be stripped of all legal protections.’”
Billard’s defense team is led by the ACLU’S Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender & HIV Projects. Among those submitting supportive briefs are the North Carolina Council of Churches and attorneys general from 17 states and the District of Columbia.
The Diocese is being defended pro bono by the Becket Fund, a well-known law firm working against LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights. Several other groups, such as the Church of Latter Day Saints and Seventh Day Adventists, have filed briefs supporting the Diocese of Charlotte.
At 76 years old, Billard is still married to his husband. He is also still deeply invested in fighting for his legal rights, especially as the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals prepares to review his case. Despite the legal battle, Billard hopes that the public remembers that he is simply a human being asking for his “dignity”:
“‘All the focus has been on how the law is written. What gets lost is that there is a human being involved. A person who lives and loves everyday.’”
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