Federal Court Rules in Favor of Catholic School Upholding Biblical View of Marriage

In a decision hailed by religious liberty advocates, a federal court is upholding a Catholic school’s right to require employees to conform to Catholic teachings when it fired a teacher for entering into a same-sex marriage.

The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Wednesday that a North Carolina Catholic school was within its rights to dismiss Lonnie Billard, a drama teacher and substitute English teacher at Charlotte Catholic High School (CCHS), after he announced he would be marrying another man. The court’s ruling said that “because Billard played a vital role as a messenger of CCHS’s faith,” the school could dismiss him from his position for contradicting Catholic moral teaching.

Billard announced on social media in 2014 that he intended to marry another man, shortly after the state legalized same-sex marriage. In response, CCHS dismissed Billard from his position for violating the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte’s employee policy prohibiting actions contrary to Catholic moral teaching. Billard and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued CCHS, the diocese, and Mecklenburg Area Catholic Schools for alleged Title VII violations. A district court ruled in favor of Billard in 2021, but that decision was reversed by Wednesday’s ruling.

Fourth Circuit Court Judge Pamela Harris, an Obama appointee, wrote Wednesday’s majority opinion. She found, “Although CCHS offers separate secular and religious classes, religion infuses daily life at the school.” She noted that the school is expressly devoted to teaching and furthering Catholic principles, citing the school’s motto and mission statement, as well as the diocesan mission statement. “CCHS’s expectations of its teachers extend beyond the classroom,” Harris wrote. “It does not require all its employees to be Catholic. But, Catholic or not, it requires its employees to conform to Catholic teachings: CCHS prohibits employees from engaging in or advocating for conduct contrary to the moral tenets of the Catholic faith, including the Catholic Church’s rejection of same-sex marriage.”

Although Harris said that, as an English and drama teacher, Billard “did not have a responsibility to educate his students explicitly in the Catholic faith,” she did note, “CCHS’s commitment to integrating faith throughout its curriculum meant that Billard had to account for religion in his classes.” CCHS had previously made numerous and even novel legal arguments to defend its actions, but Harris ultimately found that the school’s dismissal of Billard was protected by the “ministerial exception” to Title VII. “Because we conclude that Billard’s role at CCHS was ‘ministerial’ for purposes of the ministerial exception, we resolve the case on that ground,” she wrote.

The ”ministerial exception” bars the application of certain anti-discrimination laws to religious institutions when dealing with the hiring of its “ministers.” Of note, Harris stated, “The ministerial exception does not protect the church alone; it also confines the state and its civil courts to their proper roles.” Noting that certain religion-oriented disputes are beyond the authority of the courts, she wrote, “The First Amendment’s Religion Clauses … ‘bar the government from interfering’ with ministerial employment decisions or involving itself in ecclesiastical matters.” She clarified, “That means civil courts like ours are ‘bound to stay out’ of employment disputes involving ministers — those ‘holding certain important positions with churches and other religious institutions.’” Relying on U.S. Supreme Court precedent, Harris wrote, “We conclude that the school entrusted Billard with ‘vital religious duties,’ making him a ‘messenger’ of its faith and placing him within the ministerial exception.”

In response to the court’s decision, Arielle Del Turco, director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council, told The Washington Stand, “It’s encouraging to see this decision from the appellate court. No religious schools should be required to employ individuals whose actions and advocacy violate the school’s core religious beliefs.” She continued, “The main point of sending your child to a religious school is for them to be formed in their faith and taught their classes through the lens of their faith. As such, it’s important for such schools to hire teachers that share and affirm that faith, inside and outside the classroom.”

Meg Kilgannon, Family Research Council’s senior fellow for Education Studies, agreed. “This decision is important for many reasons, but especially for parents and families who are seeking an educational setting outside the home that reflects their faith and values. In our secular society, that is increasingly difficult to find, even in ostensibly Christian organizations,” she told TWS. “Decisions like this one that reaffirm the school’s right to expect and demand agreement with major doctrinal questions are much appreciated. And as a parent, I would hope that Catholic schools would strive to have faithful and practicing Catholic teachers in every class, not just religion class.”

Kilgannon added, “This situation also reminds us of the important relationship teachers have with their students/our children. Even in a substitute teacher setting, the influence of adults on children is profound.” In fact, the court also addressed that point. Harris wrote that a religious institution’s instruction that employees abide by particular religious moral codes does not automatically place all employees within the ministerial exception. But, she added, “teachers are different.” Quoting the Supreme Court, she explained, “’[E]ducating young people in their faith, inculcating its teachings, and training them to live their faith are responsibilities that lie at the very core of the mission of a private religious school’ like CCHS.”

AUTHOR

S.A. McCarthy

S.A. McCarthy serves as a news writer at The Washington Stand.

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EDITORS NOTE: This Washington Stand column is republished with permission. All rights reserved. ©2024 Family Research Council.


The Washington Stand is Family Research Council’s outlet for news and commentary from a biblical worldview. The Washington Stand is based in Washington, D.C. and is published by FRC, whose mission is to advance faith, family, and freedom in public policy and the culture from a biblical worldview. We invite you to stand with us by partnering with FRC.

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