Gay teacher fired after announcing wedding online loses court appeal

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A Catholic school in North Carolina had the right to fire a gay teacher after he announced his wedding online, a federal appeals court ruled on Wednesday (8 May). 

The court reversed a 2021 ruling that Charlotte Catholic High School and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte had violated Lonnie Billard’s employment protection against sex discrimination.

According to Associated Press, the school said in a court document that Billard, who worked as a full-time teacher for more than 10 years until 2012, wasn’t invited back as a substitute teacher because of his “advocacy in favour of a position that is opposed to what the Church teaches about marriage”.

Announcing the Fourth Circuit Court’s ruling on Wednesday (8 May), judge Pamela Harris said Billard’s case fell under a “ministerial exception” to Title VII – part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act – that protects how religious institutions treat employees “who perform tasks so central to their religious missions, even if the tasks themselves do not advertise their religious nature”.

This applied to Billard, who taught English as a substitute and drama when he was full-time, because the school reportedly expected instructors to integrate faith throughout the curriculum.

“The record makes clear that [Charlotte Catholic High School] considered it ‘vital’ to its religious mission that its teachers bring a Catholic perspective to bear on Shakespeare as well as on the Bible,” Harris said.

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Gay teacher
Teacher Lonnie Billard was fired when the school learned of his same-sex marriage. (Charlotte Observer)

Billard started working at the school in 2001. He met his now-husband in 2000, and announced that they would be getting married after same-sex marriage became legal in North Carolina in 2014, the same year he was fired. He sued the school in 2017.

After Wednesday’s ruling, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and a Charlotte law firm that helped Billard file his lawsuit, branded the decision “heart-breaking”.

Billard “wanted nothing more than the freedom to perform his duties as an educator without hiding who he is or who he loves,” the ACLU said.

The decision will affect other LGBTQ+ workers by “widening the loopholes employers may use to fire people like Mr Billard for openly discriminatory reasons”, the organisation claimed.

Commenting on the 2021 ruling that decreed he had been discriminated against, Billard said: “I wish I could have remained teaching all this time… today’s decision validates that I did nothing wrong by being a gay man.”

He reportedly has 14 days to ask the Fourth Circuit court to rehear his case, or 90 days to appeal to the Supreme Court.