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.

Charlotte latest city to expand LGBTQ protections

The Charlotte City Council unanimously approved new non-discrimination protections Monday, completing the work state lawmakers blocked with the passage of HB2 and its ensuing national controversy five years ago.

A ban on such local non-discrimination ordinances expired last year. On Monday, Charlotte became the tenth community — and by far the largest — to pass new protections.

“It’s now our time,” said Mayor Vi Lyles in a speech before the vote. “Charlotte, like many other North Carolina cities, is stepping up to provide equal justice.”

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles

State law still prevents local governments from regulating access to bathrooms or changing rooms through local ordinances, the piece of Charlotte’s ordinance on which Republican lawmakers seized five years ago when passing HB2. But the new protections create a new definition of “protected class” that includes race, color, gender, religion, ethnicity, disability, familial and veteran status, pregnancy and natural hairstyles. It also includes sex, and expands its definition to include sexual orientation, gender identity  and gender expression.

The expanded protections include sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and familial status to passenger vehicles for hire, the city’s commercial non-discrimination policy, public accommodations and employment.

Employment protections have been a key point in discussions of new and expanded non-discrimination ordinances. Nine other cities or counties have passed such protections, including Apex, Asheville, Buncombe County, Carrboro, Chapel Hill, Durham, Greensboro, Hillsborough and Orange County. But as the state’s largest city and home to some of its largest companies, Charlotte’s new protections will have an even larger impact.

“Tonight is a win, not only for the LGBTQ community, but for all Charlotteans,” said Bethany Corrigan, executive director of Transcend Charlotte, in a statement Monday night.

“We are only as strong as the least protected, and this expanded ordinance is a milestone toward equality in the Queen City,” Corrigan said. “We applaud City Council for their bipartisan collaboration in passing this comprehensive ordinance and honor the advocates who have tirelessly sacrificed for this moment.”

Kendra Johnson, executive director of Equality NC, said the vote shows an undeniable momentum for LGBTQ protections.

“Small towns, mid-sized cities, counties, and now the largest city in North Carolina have all taken steps to protect LGBTQ people and illustrate that NC is ready for these protections statewide,” Johnson said in a statement late Monday.

Daniel Valdez, president of Charlotte Pride, said he hoped this step by the state’s largest city will inspire other communities.

“With the new protections passed tonight, Charlotte finally joins its peer cities in protecting LGBTQ residents and visitors to our city,” Valdez sad in a statement after Monday’s council vote. “Tonight’s vote is a strong sign that Charlotte has finally turned a page in our decades-long fight for equality in our city. We’re hopeful that Mecklenburg County and other area towns and cities will follow Charlotte’s example.”

It’s not yet clear how Charlotte will enforce the new protections. The city’s Budget and Effectiveness Committee will put together recommendations for the full council’s consideration before the majority of the expanded ordinance goes into effect on October 1. Enforcement of the employment provision, which has the potential to generate the most complaints, is set to begin January 1.

Allison Scott, director of Impact & Innovation at the Campaign for Southern Equality, said it’s time for lawmakers beyond local communities to join in creating and enforcing non-discrimination protections.

“Leaders across North Carolina – including our U.S. Senators from NC – should look at what’s happening in our state,” Scott said in a statement Monday. “Communities are taking a stand to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination, which leads to safer, more inclusive places to live, work, and raise families. It’s time now to ensure that no LGBTQ North Carolinian is left vulnerable to discrimination – and that will require action from elected officials at every level of government.”

 

 

U.S. Department of Education extends Title IX protections to gay and transgender students

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights announced Wednesday that it would extend Title IX protections to gay and transgender students. 

“Today, the Department makes clear that all students—including LGBTQ+ students—deserve the opportunity to learn and thrive in schools that are free from discrimination,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, said in a statement.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona

Title IX is a federal civil rights law passed in 1972 that prohibits discrimination based on sex in schools. 

In a landmark decision last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity was unconstitutional. The DOE said their new interpretation of Title IX stems from this case. 

“What this means for students is that we can align to protecting students of all gender identities within schools,” Rebby Kern, director of education policy at Equality NC said. 

The DOE’s move overturns Trump-era interpretations of Title IX. In May of last year, the Trump Administration said that Title IX protections did not extend to transgender students, and threatened to cut off federal funding to schools that allowed transgender athletes to participate in school sports. 

The news comes after North Carolina dealt with its own flurry of anti-transgender laws in recent months. 

In March, a group of N.C. Republicans sponsored the “Save Women’s Sports Act,” a bill aimed at ensuring that only biologically female students could participate in women’s sports — excluding transgender athletes. 

Two more bills were introduced the following month, seeking to ban gender-affirming healthcare for transgender individuals under 21 and allowing healthcare providers to refuse any treatment that violated their conscience. 

Rebby Kern, director of education policy at Equality NC

Kern said that the DOE’s new interpretation of Title IX would protect trans students from bills like the “Save Women’s Sports Act,” but wider federal legislation is needed to combat bills that seek to restrict healthcare. 

None of these bills made it to the Governor’s desk — but they echoed another piece of anti-trans legislation in North Carolina’s recent history. 

HB2, also known as “the bathroom bill” was signed into law in 2016. It overturned an ordinance in Charlotte that sought to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity and forbade any local governments to pass similar laws. It also prohibited transgender individuals from using public restrooms that corresponded with their gender. 

HB2 was repealed a year later, after the state had already lost the NCAA Championship and over $3 billion in business because of it. To pass the repeal, lawmakers reached a compromise that put a three year moratorium on any local governments passing anti-discrimination ordinances. 

A month after the moratorium lifted in 2019, local governments across the state began to adopt LGBTQ anti-discrimination laws. Hillsborough, Carrboro and Chapel Hill were the first this past January, with more towns beginning to follow. 

Kern said there is much work left to be done to protect LGBTQ Americans, but the DOE’s move is a significant step in the right direction. 

“Having a clear Title IX statement that says gender identity and sexual orientation are included in the way that we interpret discrimination can help hold the door open for academic achievement for all children in schools,” they said. 

Gov. Cooper says the $5.7 billion in federal rescue money can bring “transformational change” to NC

Governor Roy Cooper

Gov. Roy Cooper’s ideas for spending the $5.7 billion coming to the state from the latest federal recovery package range from offering another round of direct payments to parents to improving local water and sewer systems.

Cooper presented his proposals for widespread investments to  – among other goals –  help individuals and businesses, expand high-speed internet access, improve rural downtowns, and pay for scholarships for community college and university students.

“This pandemic brought us a once in a generation challenge, and these funds a once in a generation opportunity,” Cooper said.  “Let’s use them to make transformational change for our state. We can revolutionize North Carolina.”

Cooper proposes using some of the money to continue a modified version of a program of direct grants to parents that legislative Republicans started last year.

The “extra credit grants” would go to low- and middle-income families based on their 2019 incomes, and would cost $250 million. Families would get $250 or $500, depending on their income, with people who make less money getting the bigger grant. The maximum eligible income would be set at $60,000.

Cooper said the pandemic levied the most harm to people with lower incomes. “We need to try to get the money to families who need it the most,” he said.

The state budget office estimated that 320,000 families would receive $500 and 340,000 families would get $250.

Cooper would use some of the money to continue efforts to expand high-speed internet by spending $1.2 billion on broadband access and affordability. High-speed internet became a necessity in the pandemic when students had to learn from home and medical offices pivoted to telehealth.

The spending will ensure “every home with a school-aged child will have access to high-speed internet,” Cooper said.

Other proposals include:

  • $835 million for community college and university scholarships and grants. The NC Guarantee Scholarship would offer at least $6,000 to UNC and state community college students whose families earn less than $60,000 a year. The scholarships would phase out as family income increases to $75,000.
  • $575 million for affordable housing.
  • $175 million for rural downtown transformation grants.
  • $350 million in grants to small hospitality and related businesses, including $50 million targeted to small business owners who closed or partially closed their businesses in the pandemic to help them reopen in the existing locations.
  • $800 million to fix water and sewer systems. Aging pipes in North Carolina are driving up user bills, straining local utility budgets, and contributing to water pollution. $440 million would be use for water, sewer, and stormwater projects for distressed and at-risk water and wastewater units and $360 million would be available for all units statewide, according to the supporting budget document.

Bill to exclude transgender women from sports dead this legislative session

A bill to exclude transgender women from women’s sports won’t move forward this legislative session, according to N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland).

The bill simply isn’t needed as there has been no verifiable problem with transgender women playing sports in North Carolina, Moore told the Associated Press Thursday.

“The House will not be taking up that bill,” Moore told The Associated Press. “We’ve spoken with the bill sponsors and others and simply believe that there’s not a need to take it up at this time.”

The announcement follows word last week from the office of Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) that a bill to bar gender-affirming treatment for transgender youth would not move forward as it did not have the votes to overcome a veto from Gov. Roy Cooper.

Both bills faced pressure from state and national sports organizations, including the NCAA, which has itself been feeling pressure to pull tournaments from states that have already passed such bills. States that have passed such bills have already seen legal challenges.

Moore denied to the AP that the announcement of Apple’s new East Coast campus coming to the state, and bringing 3,000 jobs, was related. But Gov. Roy Cooper said the company told him the partial repeal of HB2, which excluded LGBTQ people from non-discrimination laws, helped with the company’d decision.

On Thursday Moore told the News & Observer that the the legislature shouldn’t go looking for volatile social issues to get into.

“We had no examples of where this is really a problem and I’m a believer that you shouldn’t pass legislation unless there’s a problem you’re trying to address,” Moore told the paper. “I mean, obviously, these things can spin up and get really controversial and all of that so you know before you go down that road, there needs to be, I would say, an articulated problem.”