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Federal appeals court sides with Charlotte Catholic High in gay teacher firing case

Two men smiling at the camera
Lonnie Billard
Lonnie Billard, left, with his husband, Richard Donham.

A federal appellate court has found Charlotte Catholic High School was within its rights to fire a teacher after school leaders learned he was planning to marry his same-sex partner. That overturns the lower court’s ruling.

Lonnie Billard worked at the school for more than a decade and won the Charlotte Catholic Teacher of the Year award in 2012. Two years later, shortly after gay marriage became legal in North Carolina, he posted on Facebook that he and his longtime partner were engaged to be married. The school told Billard he could no longer work as a teacher because those plans violated the moral teachings of the Catholic faith.

Billard sued, saying the school violated Title VII, which prohibits sex discrimination in employment. But the Fourth Circuit of Appeals found that his case falls under an exception that allows religious institutions to discriminate in their treatment of certain employees with vital religious duties. Billard taught English and drama at the time as a long-term substitute.

Judge Pamela Harris wrote in the court’s opinion that it’s clear Charlotte Catholic High School considered it “vital” to its religious mission that teachers bring a Catholic perspective to bear on Shakespeare as well as on the Bible.

Catholic administrators said the decision upheld their religious freedom.

"Many of our parents work long hours and make significant sacrifices so their children can attend our schools and receive a faithful Catholic education,” said Diocese of Charlotte Assistant Superintendent Allana Ramkissoon in a statement. “That’s because we inspire our students not only to harness the lessons and tools they need to thrive, but to cherish their faith as a precious gift from God."

Billard could choose to appeal his case. In a statement, the American Civil Liberties Union, which partnered with Billard on his lawsuit, said the decision would allow for more discrimination.

"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. Every worker should be entitled to equal protection under the law," the ACLU said.

Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.
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