U.S. federal court will be the venue for the latest employment suit brought by an LGBT person against a Catholic institution.
Lonnie Billard, who in 2014 was fired from his job as an English and drama teacher at Charlotte Catholic High School, North Carolina, is suing the school and the Charlotte Diocese which operates the institution. Billard was fired after his impending marriage to longtime partner Richard Donham.
The Daily Mail explained the basis of the suit:
“Billard’s lawyers argue the firing violates prohibitions against sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. . . .
“The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which determined Billard has the right to sue, says on its website that religious organizations can give employment preference to members of the faith but can’t otherwise discriminate against protected classes of people.
“The commission’s position is that the definition of ‘sex’ contained in Title VII protects lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from workplace discrimination. It says a number of federal court decisions support the view that sexual orientation is covered under prohibitions against sex discrimination.”
However, according to one legal expert, the law in this regard is still being tested, so the outcome is not a certainty.
Billard’s American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawyers are more confident about the case, according to The Charlotte News Observer:
“ACLU State Legal Director Chris Brook says in this case religious organizations are not immune from the ban against workplace sex discrimination outlined in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
” ‘The school has a right to its religious beliefs,’ he told the Observer. ‘It does not have the right to ignore Title VII.’
“Billard said his adherence to Catholic doctrine ‘was never a part of the employment process.’
” ‘I was interviewed about my qualifications to be in the classroom. There was absolutely nothing said about “Are you gay or are you straight?” Although it didn’t take very long for people to figure that out,’ he said. ‘In the classroom, there was nothing about the Catholic religion. I taught the curriculum. I taught what was in the books.’
‘Brook argues that other employees of the school violate Catholic teachings about divorce and other spiritual matters. ‘Lonnie was the only one fired.’ “
“Billard said it was no secret at Charlotte Catholic High School that he was in a committed relationship with his partner, Rich.
” ‘For all these years, Rich and I were a known entity. We were a gay couple in that environment. They knew it and no one ever said a word,’ Billard explained.
“A lawsuit filed on Wednesday alleges Billard was fired in 2014 after a Facebook post announced his intentions to marry his partner.
” ‘He had come to all the plays I directed. The kids knew him, the parents knew him, the administration knew him and, in fact, the administration would be sure to say, “Make sure to bring Rich, make sure to bring Rich,” ‘ Billard said.”
The Daily Mail reported that the lawsuit noted that a diocese spokesman said that Billard was let go for ‘going on Facebook, entering into a same-sex relationship, and saying it in a very public way that he does not agree with the teachings of the Catholic Church.’
To add to the injustice, Billard,69, taught full-time at the school for more than a decade (though he had scaled back to be a long-term substitute) and was given the”Teacher of the Year Award” in 2012. He commented on his teaching career to The Daily Mail:
“I know that the Catholic Church opposes same-sex marriage, but I don’t think my commitment to my husband has any bearing on my work in the classroom. I have never hidden the fact that I’m gay and my relationship with my partner was no secret at school. But whether or not the school previously knew that I am gay is not the point. People should be able to fall in love and get married without risking their jobs.”
Since the firing, Billard has left the Catholic Church.
Several other church employees fired because of LGBT issues also have similar cases pending in federal court: Sandor Demkovich, Colin Collette, John Murphy, and Flint Dollar. Shaela Evenson brought a federal suit, but reached a private settlement before trial. Other similar cases have also settled, but these were brought in state courts. For a list of legal cases involving LGBT Catholic church employees, click here. For New Ways Ministry’s resource page on “Catholicism, Employment, and LGBT Issues,” click here.
If you are concerned about the issue of LGBT employment in the Catholic Church, consider attending New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, “Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis,” April 28-30, 2017, Chicago. One of our plenary session speakers will be Leslie C. Griffin, Professor of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and a national expert on the intersection of law and religion. She will be speaking on the topic of “Religious Liberty, Employment, and LGBT Issues.” Additionally, one of the symposium’s focus sessions will be on “The Challenges of LGBT Church Workers” and will feature Colleen Simon, Margie Winters, and Andrea di Vettori, who have all experienced firings from Catholic institutions because of marriage issues. For more information and to register, click here.
—Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, January 13, 2017