Catholic School can Legally Fire Teacher in Same-Sex Marriage Court Rules

A Catholic school in North Carolina was within its legal rights to dismiss a substitute teacher because he was in a same-sex marriage, a federal appeals court ruled. A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that Charlotte Catholic High School could fire Lonnie Billard for marrying a man. Circuit Judge Pamela Harris, an Obama appointee, authored the majority opinion, concluding that the Catholic school was protected by the “ministerial exception,” noting that Billard’s employment involved an inherently religious element. “We conclude that the school entrusted Billard with ‘vital religious duties,’ making him a ‘messenger’ of its faith and placing him within the ministerial exception,” wrote Harris. “Billard was expected to, and did, begin each class with prayer and attend Mass with his students, where he regularly opted to receive communion. All of this indicates the performance of ‘vital religious duties’ that implicate the ministerial exception.” The panel reversed a lower court ruling in favour of Billard and remanded the case back to the district court, with instructions to enter a judgment in favour of the Catholic high school.

Circuit Judge Robert B. King, a Clinton appointee, authored an opinion in which he concurred with the judgment but dissented in part. He believes the case could have been decided on the religious exemption provided in the federal Title VII civil rights law. Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at the religious freedom legal group Becket, who helped represent the Catholic school, released a statement celebrating the ruling. “The Supreme Court has been crystal clear on this issue: Catholic schools have the freedom to choose teachers who fully support Catholic teaching,” Goodrich said. “This is a victory for people of all faiths who cherish the freedom to pass on their faith to the next generation.” The American Civil Liberties Union, (ACLU) of North Carolina and Tin Fulton Walker & Owen, which represented Billard, released a joint statement denouncing the panel ruling. “This is a heartbreaking decision for our client who wanted nothing more than the freedom to perform his duties as an educator without hiding who he is or who he loves,” they stated.

“While today’s decision is narrowly tailored to Mr. Billard and the facts of his employment, it nonetheless threatens to encroach on that principle by widening the loopholes employers may use to fire people like Mr. Billard for openly discriminatory reasons.” In 2014, shortly after gay marriage was legalized by judicial fiat in North Carolina, Billard announced on Facebook that he and his longtime male partner were getting married. In response, CCHS dismissed Billard for being in violation of the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte’s policy prohibiting staff from engaging in actions contrary to Catholic moral teaching. With the help of the ACLU, Billard filed a lawsuit in 2017 against the CCHS, the diocese, and Mecklenburg Area Catholic Schools, accusing them of violating his rights under Title VII. In 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that two Catholic schools in California were within their rights to dismiss two teachers on the basis of classifying them as “ministers” rather than secular professionals.

“The religious education and formation of students is the very reason for the existence of most private religious schools, and therefore the selection and supervision of the teachers upon whom the schools rely on to do this work lie at the core of their mission,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito in the majority opinion. “Judicial review of the way in which religious schools discharge those responsibilities would undermine the independence of religious institutions in a way that the First Amendment does not tolerate.” A dissent authored by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, argues that the court’s decision “strips thousands of schoolteachers of their legal protections.” “The Court’s apparent deference here threatens to make nearly anyone whom the schools might hire ‘ministers’ unprotected from discrimination in the hiring process,” wrote Sotomayor.

Source: Christian Post

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