One of the most liberal appellate courts in the country has ruled that a Catholic high school could fire a teacher for marrying another man, a victory for conservative and religious advocacy groups that have pushed back against anti-discrimination law.

The unusual decision came from three judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which in recent weeks has issued two major rulings in favor of transgender rights. Crossing ideological lines, an Obama and a Reagan appointee joined to warn that a Clinton appointee’s view of the case would put hundreds of thousands of people at risk of losing their jobs based on their sex, race or age.

The court ruled that Lonnie Billard, who taught English and drama before becoming a substitute teacher at a Catholic high school in Charlotte, counts as a “minister” who can be fired for not adhering to the Church’s religious beliefs on homosexuality.

“This is a massive victory,” said Luke Goodrich of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, who argued the case. No other court, he said, had ruled that a substitute teacher who did not teach religious classes counted as a “minister.” “Under the logic of this ruling, almost every teacher at almost every religious school” could be dismissed for “violating core religious beliefs.”

Billard announced on Facebook in October 2014 that he was engaged to his partner of 14 years, about two weeks after same-sex marriage became legal in North Carolina. He was subsequently let go from his job. The American Civil Liberties Union backed his lawsuit alleging sex discrimination.

In a statement, the ACLU called the decision “heartbreaking” and condemned “widening the loopholes employers may use to fire people like Mr. Billard for openly discriminatory reasons.”


The Supreme Court in 2020 set out a broad “ministerial exception” to anti-discrimination laws, saying that under the First Amendment, religious organizations can decide who represents the faith. But the court also ruled recently that federal civil rights law protects gay and transgender workers from discrimination. Conservative religious groups have argued that after that ruling, the ministerial exception must be even broader to allow them to maintain their belief that homosexuality and gender transition are sinful.

Charlotte Catholic High School actually denied that Billard was a minister. Teachers of secular subjects at the school do not have to be Catholic and are generally discouraged from discussing religion with students, according to the court record.

But the judges concluded that Billard was still “a vital role as a messenger of [the school’s] faith.” Teachers at the school were scored in their annual evaluations on whether their lesson plans were “agreeable with Catholic thought.” Billard testified that he coordinated with religion teachers to make sure his teaching of plays like “Romeo and Juliet” were “in tune” with the doctrine. Classes began with a prayer, and Billard took his students to Mass.

All that, the court argued, made him a minister who could be let go for failing to, in the school’s view, properly represent Catholicism.

While the decision is a blow to gay rights and free speech groups that represented Billard, the court said it was avoiding a legal theory that could have led to more widespread discrimination. The school had argued that a religious institution has a right to fire any employee who they see as contradicting their beliefs, whether that person is a minister or not.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that a wedding business owner could refuse to do work for a same-sex couple under the First Amendment’s free speech protections. The school argued that the ruling also helped its case, and that a church school has a related right to choose not to “associate” with gay people. But the school’s primary argument was that Billard’s firing fell under a different exception written into federal civil rights law – that faith groups can choose to employ “individuals of a particular religion.” A district court in Texas has agreed with that interpretation.


A ruling in favor of the school on those grounds could legalize not just firing of gay employees but “race and national-origin discrimination” as well, the majority said, as long as the decision was justified on religious grounds. “We have understood that exemption to operate as a defense only to claims of religious discrimination – allowing religious institutions to favor co-religionists in hiring – and not to claims of race or sex discrimination,” they said.

The ruling was written by Judge Pamela Harris, a Biden appointee, and joined by Paul V. Niemeyer, a Reagan appointee. In dissent, Judge Robert B. King, a Clinton appointee, wrote that he agreed with the decision but said the court was “obliged” to rule that the exception to federal civil rights law barring employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin applies. He did not respond to the majority’s argument that his interpretation would allow for racial and ethnic discrimination.

Goodrich dismissed those arguments as strawmen. “You haven’t seen any of those hypotheticals manifest, and there’s multiple reasons for that,” he said, including that other federal laws explicitly bar racial and ethnic bias in employment. When the court held public arguments over this case last year, Harris suggested those are also under threat. The Trump administration tried to limit enforcement of one law Goodrich cited; the Supreme Court recently raised the bar for proving bias under another.

“That is very much an active issue,” Harris said. “I don’t think we should consider that sort of a stable area of the law.”

But Goodrich argued that religious justifications for firings are rare, while a broader ministerial exception gives religious groups far more power to fire employees without fear of a lawsuit. The Supreme Court has ruled it applies to claims of discrimination based on age or disability.

Under this ruling, he said, “the vast majority of claims are barred for pretty much every teacher in every religious school.”

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