Gay substitute teacher wrongfully fired by Catholic school after announcing wedding on Facebook, says court

‘After all this time, I have a sense of relief and a sense of vindication. I wish I could have remained teaching this whole time,’ says North Carolina teacher

Clara Hill
Monday 06 September 2021 15:51
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<p>Lonnie Billard, 69, announced his marriage plans on Facebook after North Carolina legalised same-sex marriage, prompting him to be removed as a substitute teacher by a Catholic school in Charlotte </p>

Lonnie Billard, 69, announced his marriage plans on Facebook after North Carolina legalised same-sex marriage, prompting him to be removed as a substitute teacher by a Catholic school in Charlotte

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A gay substitute teacher was wrongfully let go from the Catholic school he taught at, a North Carolina federal judge has ruled.

Lonnie Billard, 69, was fired from his Drama and English teaching role at Charlotte Catholic High School after he shared his plans to marry his long term partner on Facebook in 2014. Weeks after posting the news, he was told that he was being terminated from his position. Legal proceedings were launched by Mr Billard in 2017, according to documents.

Mr Billard started working at the school fulltime in 2001 but retired in 2012, the year he was voted Teacher of the Year, according to court documents. Following his retirement, Mr Billard transitioned to a substitute role at the school.

Mr Billard said he never hid his sexuality from the school, as his partner had attended school events and met members of staff. Their October wedding announcement on Facebook came after North Carolina allowed same-sex marriage. He was told he was no longer employed as a substitute teacher on Christmas Day the same year, after a “complaint” was received by the school and church officials.

According to local reports at the time, a Diocese representative said Mr Billard was fired for “going on Facebook, entering into a same-sex relationship and saying in a very public way that he does not agree with the teachings of the Catholic Church”, according to the Charlotte Observer.

US District Judge Max Cogburn Jr ruled that the school and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Charlotte had broken workplace sex-discrimination laws for dismissing him for being gay, citing the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

The judge granted a summary judgement and a trial to decipher the damages Mr Billard was entitled to. He is asking for back pay, employment benefits, damages for the emotional strain and a ban on them doing the same again.

“After all this time, I have a sense of relief and a sense of vindication. I wish I could have remained teaching this whole time,” he said in a statement from by the North Carolina chapter of the ACLU, who represented him during the proceedings.

Officials from Catholic Church responded to the ruling, saying they “respectfully disagree ... 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,” they continued. “They do not – and should not – compel religious schools to employ teachers who publicly contradict their teachings,” they told the Charlotte Observer.

“The Catholic schools offered by the Diocese of Charlotte exist to provide high-quality education and transmit the Catholic faith to the next generation. Like all religious schools, Catholic schools are permitted to employ educators who support our Church’s teachings and will not publicly oppose them,” they continued.

The defendants argued that Mr Billard was not let go because he was gay, but because of his “advocacy” of beliefs that went against the Church’s when he announced he was going to be marrying a man, according to the ruling.

Judge Cogburn Jr ruled that they had broken under labour law and were not protected by religious liberty exemptions on 3 September.

He wrote: “Plaintiff is a lay employee, who comes onto the campus of a religious school for the limited purposes of teaching secular classes, with no mandate to inculcate students with Catholic teachings.”

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