[Ed. Note, (Jan. 13, 2015, 7:19 p.m.) — This story has been updated to reflect a minor factual correction on the number of years the teacher worked at Charlotte Catholic High School; teacher Lonnie Billard said he worked there for 15 years, but the diocese says he worked there for 11. We have updated the story to note Billard was employed for “over a decade.” Additionally, we have clarified another portion of the story. The diocese says school officials made the decision to fire Billard; he disagrees and says the decision was made elsewhere.]
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The local Roman Catholic diocese is in hot water again for anti-LGBT discrimination, this time firing a gay teacher after he announced he would marry his same-gender partner later this year.
Lonnie Billard, a retired drama and English teacher at Charlotte Catholic High School, was told just before the new year that he would no longer be employed as a longterm substitute teacher. Billard, 68, had worked for over a decade as a full-time teacher at Charlotte Catholic, retiring in 2012 and substituting ever since.
Officials with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte say the decision to terminate Billard’s employment was made by officials at Charlotte Catholic High School after he said he intended to marry his partner this May. Billard’s announcement was made on Facebook earlier in the fall. Billard disagrees with the diocese and says the decision wasn’t made by school administrators.
“This was not a decision by Charlotte Catholic High School,” Billard said in an interview with qnotes on Monday. “I had talked with one of the administration officials. He knew [about the announcement]. He didn’t care. He said he knew me to be a good teacher and a good person.”
But, Billard said trouble arose elsewhere.
“Apparently there were a couple teachers there who are super-conservative Catholic,” said Billard, himself a member of the church. “They are not friends of mine on Facebook, but they found out about it and escalated it so it got to the diocese.”
The diocesan newspaper, the Catholic News Herald, said the decision had been made at the school. Billard said the newspaper never spoke to him.
Diocese officials are standing by their decision to fire Billard, and it’s not the first time the diocese has fired a gay employee. In 2012, the diocese fired popular music director Steav Congdon after he married his partner. Church officials call it “a public act that is in disobedience to Church teaching.”
“People who work for the Diocese of Charlotte agree that they will not oppose the teaching of the Catholic Church. We cannot and will not employ a substitute teacher who opposes Church teaching,” diocese spokesman David Hains said in a Jan. 9 statement, according to the diocesan newspaper.
The two firings also follow other anti-LGBT controversy at the diocese’s largest high school. Last spring, the school invited a conservative nun to speak to a student assembly on sexuality. Students reported that the nun said an absent father and masturbation make boys gay, and that gay men have 500-1,000 sexual partners in their lifetime.
The resulting controversy included a meeting with over 1,000 parents of Charlotte Catholic students, many of whom were upset over the nun’s comments. Their opposition to the nun, the school priest and “church teaching,” resulted in an admonishment from diocese Bishop Peter Jugis. “There simply is no room in the Catholic Church for such displays of uncharitableness and disrespect,” Jugis said at the time.
Billard: Firing sends destructive message to LGBT students
Billard says he was upset after the firing.
“I was terribly hurt,” he said, astonished at his treatment after years of honest work that landed him a teacher of the year win and multiple other nominations. “I love to teach. I absolutely love to teach and to be denied that opportunity for something never even enters the classroom was devastating.”
But more than his own treatment, Billard said he is concerned about the message being sent to LGBT students.
“I know exactly what message it sends. I’ve heard from them. It sends the message that they don’t matter,” Billard said. “One of the counselors there actually had a kid come into their office after this announcement and asked, ‘Am I going to be expelled because I’m gay?’ It sends such a destructive and hurtful message to kids, instead of validating them for their beauty and validating them for the love they bring. It tells them they don’t count.”
Billard knows the church is within its rights to fire him, and he’s certain a majority of teachers, parents and students support him. He’s been “overwhelmed” by the amount of encouragement he’s received.
Yet, he never expected to be treated so badly by the diocese.
“I knew the Catholic Church is behind the times when it comes to understanding and acceptance of gay people,” Billard said, “but I thought with the current pope saying, ‘Who am I to judge?’ that maybe things would be better, but apparently that’s not the case.”
Billard said he’s certain he’ll teach again, but he’s less sure now how safe he’ll feel worshiping in his own church.
“Frankly, I’m not sure what I’m going to do about that,” he said. “It got to the point where every time something came up, the diocese was so negative and so hurtful to LGBT people. It’s very difficult for me to go into church and find the peace to worship when I know that everything they stand for behind that service is wrong.”
Despite the firing, Billard’s moving ahead with plans for his wedding.
“We are of a generation that never expected this,” he said. “We never thought it even possible.”
Billard’s and his partner’s marriage will be held May 3.