CV NEWS FEED // A federal judge has ruled that a North Carolina Catholic school had no right to fire a substitute teacher whom the school says engaged in LGBT advocacy contrary to Church teaching.
Charlotte Catholic High School let Lonnie Billard go from his position as a substitute teacher after he publicly rejected Catholic teachings and announced on Facebook that he would “marry” his longtime homosexual partner in 2014.
Last week, U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn, appointed by President Barack Obama in 2011, ruled that the firing was a case of unconstitutional sexual discrimination.
The court rejected a number of defenses on the part of the school and the Diocese of Charlotte — both named in the ex-employee’s suit — and cited Title VII on behalf of the plaintiff in its ruling.
“Under Bostock, this Court finds that Plaintiff has raised a valid Title VII sex discrimination claim,” wrote Judge Cogburn:
Defendants cannot escape Title VII liability by recharacterizing Plaintiff’s announcement of his engagement as “advocacy.” If Plaintiff were a woman who posted on Facebook that she was getting married to her husband, Defendants would not have interpreted her announcement as “advocacy” for or against the Catholic Church. Plaintiff’s engagement was only considered advocacy because of his sex.
Observers have noted that the court ruling seems at first glance to contradict the conclusion of a similar case that took place in Indiana. As CatholicVote reported:
A federal court in Indiana ruled … that the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and Roncalli High School were within their rights to discontinue the employment contract of a guidance counselor at the Catholic school after she “married” another woman.
Lynn Starkey tried to sue both the archdiocese and the school for unconstitutionally discriminating against her because she is LGBT, but Roncalli argued that Starkey “was a minister for purposes of the First Amendment’s ministerial exception,” the court explained. “[The] court concludes that Starkey qualified as a minister, and that the ministerial exception bars all of Starkey’s claims.”
Attorney Luke Goodrich of Becket Law represented the archdiocese and school in the Indiana case. He sees some parallels, but also some differences, in the North Carolina case.
“The constitution protects the right of Catholic schools to expect that Catholic teachers will uphold the Catholic faith,” Goodrich told CatholicVote Tuesday. “The Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized that right as protected both by the constitution and by federal law.”
The court ruled in our favor of the Indiana archdiocese and school on the grounds of the “ministerial exception,” Goodrich explained. But in the Charlotte case, the school is not invoking the ministerial defense.
There are several other avenues of defense, Goodrich said.
One is a statutory religious protection under Title VII, the federal employment discrimination law. “Title VII says that [Title VII] doesn’t apply to religious organizations who hire individuals of ‘a particular religion’ to do their work,” Goodrich said. “The Charlotte court construed that phrase, ‘individuals of a particular religion,’ very narrowly,” while Title VII itself does not.
Title VII defines religion to include “all aspects of religious observance and practice as well as belief,” said Goodrich. “So that covers conduct,” such as Billard’s advocacy against Catholic teaching.
Another defense for the school is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a federal statute that protects the free exercise of religion, Goodrich said.
Yet another defense is the “church autonomy” exception. “The ministerial exception says a fired plaintiff who qualifies as a minister can’t sue” the institution that hired him or her to minister within its religious tradition.
“But the ministerial exception falls under the much broader church autonomy exception,” Goodrich said. “The church autonomy exception says if you have a good reason related to your religion to fire someone even if they don’t qualify as a minister, you’re within your rights to do so.”
Finally, the school can invoke what is called “freedom of expressive association” under the First Amendment. “It’s not necessarily a religious exception,” said Goodrich. A prominent example of an organization successfully invoking freedom of expressive association in court is the Boy Scouts of America.
In Boy Scouts vs. Dale, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Boy Scouts after a former scout leader attempted to sue them. The organization fired the scout leader “for engaging in gay activism,” counter to the mission of the Boy Scouts.
Similar legal reasoning can apply to the Charlotte school case, Goodrich said. “The Catholic Church forms schools to express a particular message, but then a school employee undermines that message, so they can’t be forced to retain him or her.”
Some legal commentators are already questioning the ruling against Charlotte Catholic High School, and it is considered likely that the case is far from permanently settled.
One popular court watcher, “John Doe,” put it this way: “This seems like a case that’s headed to the Supreme Court.”