Gay marriage lawsuit against Catholic school not expected to succeed
Catholic News Agency Jan 18, 2017
Charlotte, N.C., Jan 17, 2017 / 05:02 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- A lawsuit against a Catholic high school claims that it was illegal discrimination to fire a teacher for contracting a same-sex civil marriage, but a law professor suggests the case will not make any progress.
“What they're trying to do is they're trying to make new law in this case,” Prof. Robert Destro told CNA. “I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't get their case dismissed.” Destro, a law professor of the Catholic University of America's Columbus School of Law, served 16 years on the U.S. Commission for Civil Rights.
Charlotte Catholic High School in North Carolina and the Diocese of Charlotte faces a lawsuit from a substitute teacher who says he was fired after he posted about his same-sex wedding on Facebook. The Charlotte, N.C. high school is part of the diocesan school system. Lonnie Billard had begun working at the school in 2001 as a full time faculty member. He taught English and drama. He said he brought his partner to school events and their relationship was known to students, teachers, parents and administrators.
He retired in 2012 and became a long-term substitute teacher. In October 2014 he posted a wedding announcement on Facebook. An assistant principal at the school then told him he would no longer be hired as a substitute teacher. The suit claimed that the diocese ordered his termination because of his announcement.
In January 2015 diocesan communications director David Hains said that continued employment of Billard would be “legitimating that relationship” and wrongly indicate Church approval, the lawsuit said. The lawsuit was filed on Billard’s behalf by the North Carolina office of the American Civil Liberties Union and the law firm Tin Fulton Walker & Owen.
The lawsuit claims it is a cause for legal action to fire someone on the basis of sex, because of his intention to enter a same-sex civil marriage and “because he does not conform to sex-based stereotypes associated with men in our society.” Chris Brook, the ACLU state legal director, said that religious organizations are not exempt from the federal ban on sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
He claimed that other teachers violated Catholic teaching on divorce and other matters, but Billard was the only teacher fired. Destro, however, said he did not think the lawsuit had a basis in precedent. He questioned the lawsuit’s claim that marriages fall under sex discrimination.
“The question whether or not certain marriages are legitimate, whether certain relationships are consistent with the moral teachings of the Church, has nothing to do with the definition of ‘sex’,” he said. The law allows religion to be a standard of employment in religious schools, he explained. This allows the school “to control the learning environment and who teaches in it.”
“It’s pretty clear from the law that the schools have the right and the obligation to stay in control of their curriculum,” he said. According to Destro, the question is not a matter of the teacher’s sexual orientation. “The question is about whether you’re bearing sufficient witness to the faith in the course of your teaching, another question entirely.”
Even if a teacher is not Catholic, Destro said, school contracts usually specify standards of behavior concerning teachers’ roles. CNA sought comment from the diocese but did not receive a response by deadline.
“The Diocese of Charlotte has not received any paperwork. Typically we don’t discuss ongoing litigation,” Hains, the diocese’s communications director, told the Charlotte Observer. He said diocesan officials had not seen the lawsuit as of Jan. 11. In January 2015 Hains noted the Church’s belief that marriage is a union only of a man and a woman and rejected claims of discrimination.
“He’s not being picked on because he’s gay. He lost his job as a substitute teacher because he broke a promise because he chose to oppose church teaching, something he promised he would not do.” Billard said that his adherence to Catholic teaching was never part of the employment process. The lawsuit seeks back pay and benefits, punitive damage, compensatory damages for emotional distress, and a court order blocking the school and Catholic leaders from taking similar actions in the future, “restraining Defendants from engaging in further discriminatory conduct.”
The legal action comes after several years of advocacy against religious freedom protections. The American Civil Liberties Union is receiving funding from groups like the Arcus Foundation for projects to “beat back” religious exemptions, grant listings show. The foundation, founded by billionaire heir Jon Stryker, is also funding some Catholic dissenting groups. Stryker was a major funder of the effort to redefine civil marriage in the United States.