A federal judge in North Carolina ruled Friday that a Roman Catholic school wrongfully fired a gay substitute teacher after he announced his plans to marry his partner in 2014.
U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn ruled against Charlotte Catholic High School, Mecklenburg Area Catholic Schools, and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Charlotte. He wrote that Lonnie Billard’s termination violated Billard’s federal protections against sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
A trial will go ahead to determine the relief for Billard. Cogburn said Billard is entitled to damages but did not rule on the amount.
Cogburn ruled that religious protections did not apply to Billard’s role in teaching English and drama because he held a secular teaching position.
“Plaintiff is a lay employee, who comes onto the campus of a religious school for the limited purpose of teaching secular classes, with no mandate to inculcate students with Catholic teachings,” Cogburn wrote in his decision.
He added that the school even encouraged Billard and others who taught nonreligious topics not to discuss such religion in their classes.
“Today’s decision is one of the first applications of the Supreme Court’s ban on sex discrimination to employees of private religious schools,” said Irena Como, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, in a press release. The ACLU was one of the groups representing Billard. “The court sent a clear message that Charlotte Catholic violated Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination when it fired Mr. Billard for announcing his engagement to his same-sex partner.” In 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Bostock v. Clayton County that workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is sex discrimination under Title VII.
Billard had worked at the school full-time as an English and drama teacher for over a decade, according to the Associated Press. He won Teacher of the Year in 2012. He later became a substitute teacher for the school and worked over a dozen weeks a year.
"After all this time, I have a sense of relief and a sense of vindication. I wish I could have remained teaching all this time," Billard said. "Today's decision validates that I did nothing wrong by being a gay man."
Billard posted about his wedding in October 2014, and a few weeks later Charlotte Catholic High School officials told him he was out of his job.
The school and other defendants argued that Billard wasn’t fired for being gay, but because “he engaged in ‘advocacy’ that went against the Catholic Church’s beliefs” when he “publicly announced his intention to marry a person of the same sex,” according to the ruling.
“Religious schools have the right to decide who will perform religious functions or teach religious doctrine, but when they hire employees for secular jobs they must comply with Title VII and cannot discriminate based on sexual orientation,” Como said.