Federal court: Charlotte Catholic High School violated civil rights of gay substitute teacher it fired

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A federal judge has ruled that a Charlotte Catholic school wrongfully terminated a substitute teacher after finding out he got married to a man.

Lonnie Billard taught English and later drama full-time at Charlotte High before switching to primarily teaching English part-time in 2012. The school, part of the Mecklenburg Area Catholic Schools system, terminated his employment in December 2014, two months after he announced on Facebook his engagement to his long-time partner, who also taught briefly at a school within the system.

The school, claimed that it terminated Billard because of his statements about gay marriage on Facebook rather than the fact that he was gay, and sought First Amendment protection for the firing.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge for the Western District of North Carolina Max Cogburn Jr. acknowledged that religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage are protected views and forms of expression in some instances, but also determined that “Defendants admit that while they fired Plaintiff for his actions, they would only have reprimanded a straight teacher who spoke positively about same-sex marriage.”

The court ruling upheld the plaintiff’s Title VII claim accusing the school of employment discrimination, as Billard lost employment because of sex discrimination and taught a secular subject instead of religious studies.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religions, sex and national origin.

Billard said he sees the ruling as a vindication for him. “I did nothing wrong by being a gay man,” he said in a press release from the ACLU of NC, which represents him.

According to the ACLU of NC, the ruling is one of the first applications of the Supreme Court’s ban on sex discrimination in private religious schools.

“Religious schools have the right to decide who will perform religious functions or teach religious doctrine, but when they hire employees for secular jobs they must comply with Title VII and cannot discriminate based on sexual orientation,” said Irena Como, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina in a press release last week.

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