Gay teacher wins lawsuit against Catholic school that fired him because he wanted to marry
A gay teacher has won his lawsuit against the Catholic school that fired him after they learned he was planning to marry his same-sex partner.
The school and the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte violated workplace sex discrimination laws in firing the former teacher, Lonnie Billard, US district judge Max Cogburn Jr ruled on Friday (3 September).
Reacting to the judge’s decision, Billard said in a statement that he felt “a sense of relief and a sense of vindication”.
“I wish I could have remained teaching all this time,” he commented. “Today’s decision validates that I did nothing wrong by being a gay man.”
Lonnie Billard worked as an English and drama teacher at North Carolina’s Charlotte Catholic High School for more 13 years. He won numerous awards in that time, including teacher of the year in 2012 and inspirational educator from North Carolina State University in 2011.
Billard said his sexuality was no secret to anyone at school – his partner accompanied him to events and was well known to students, teachers and parents.
But everything changed when he announced his plans to marry. Billard learned he’d lost his job on Christmas Day 2014; an assistant principal later told him the diocese ordered his termination because he posted a wedding announcement on Facebook.
A diocesan spokesman confirmed to local news at the time that the teacher lost his job “for going on Facebook, entering in a same-sex relationship and saying in a very public way that he does not agree with the teachings of the Catholic Church”.
Charlotte Catholic’s code of conduct does not explicitly state the school’s standing on marriage, according to court documents.
In May 2015 Billard filed sex discrimination charges against Charlotte Catholic with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and more than six years later, a federal judge ruled in his favour.
In the ruling the judge said the school and the diocese violated workplace sex discrimination laws in firing the gay teacher, as federal laws protecting church autonomy and freedom of association do not “shield” the school from liability for violating sex discrimination laws in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
In a statement Saturday, diocesan officials said they “respectfully disagree” with the judge’s ruling “and are considering next steps”.
“The First Amendment, federal law, and recent Supreme Court decisions all recognise the rights of religious organisations to make employment decisions based on religious observance and preference,” according to the statement from the diocese.
“They do not – and should not – compel religious schools to employ teachers who publicly contradict their teachings.”
Meanwhile, the case now moves to a trial to determine how Billard will be compensated.
Billard requested back pay and benefits, punitive damage, compensatory damages for emotional distress and a court order blocking the school and Catholic leaders from taking similar punitive actions in the future.
“I don’t think anyone should be fired for who they love,” Billard told the Charlotte Observer. “I just wanted to teach.”