Federal court says Catholic school has right to employ teachers who uphold church teaching

(OSV News) -- A federal appeals court May 8 ruled in favor of the Diocese of Charlotte, North Carolina, protecting religious schools' freedom to hire schoolteachers who will uphold their religious beliefs.

In Billard v. Diocese of Charlotte, a former substitute teacher sued Charlotte Catholic High School and the diocese for not calling him back to work as a substitute teacher after he entered a same-sex union and posted about it on Facebook. That contradicted Catholic teachings about marriage and violated the diocese's employment policy, disqualifying him to assist the school in fulfilling its mission, the school and diocese argued.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, Virginia, overturned a lower court ruling and reaffirmed the school's freedom to employ teachers who will uphold the faith.

"This is a victory for people of all faiths who cherish the freedom to pass on their faith to the next generation," said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, a nonprofit law firm specializing in religious liberty, which represents the diocese pro-bono in the case. "The Supreme Court has been crystal clear on this issue: Catholic schools have the freedom to choose teachers who fully support Catholic teaching."

The Diocese of Charlotte has operated Catholic schools across western North Carolina for more than 50 years. Its 20 schools provide a top-notch education that also helps students grow in the Catholic faith, making the opportunity widely available to students of all backgrounds. To ensure teachers are helping the diocese fulfill its mission, the diocese asks all of its teachers -- Catholic and non-Catholic -- to uphold the Catholic faith in word and deed.

Lonnie Billard taught English and drama at Charlotte Catholic High School for over a decade before retiring and then returning as a substitute teacher. Billard received training in the school's religious mission and signed a contract agreeing to uphold church teaching. In 2015, he entered a same-sex union in knowing violation of church teaching and wrote about it on Facebook, where he was friends with many of the school's faculty and families.

When the school stopped calling him to work as a substitute teacher, he partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union to sue the school and the diocese, seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation.In its ruling, the 4th Circuit explained the First Amendment requires civil courts to "stay out" of employment disputes involving ministers. The court found that Billard was a minister because Charlotte Catholic requires its teachers to "model and promote Catholic faith and morals." Billard therefore played a "vital role" in advancing the school's religious mission -- even if he taught secular subjects such as English and drama.

"Many of our parents work long hours and make significant sacrifices so their children can attend our schools and receive a faithful Catholic education," Assistant Superintendent Allana Ramkissoon said in a statement. "That's because we inspire our students not only to harness the lessons and tools they need to thrive, but to cherish their faith as a precious gift from God."

Besides North Carolina, the 4th Circuit's jurisdiction includes Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and South Carolina.

- - - Catholic News Herald is the news outlet of the Diocese of Charlotte..