Catholic leaders in Charlotte have appealed a federal judge’s decision that they violated federal law when they fired a gay substitute teacher after he put his same-sex wedding plans on Facebook. The Diocese of Charlotte will rely on a religious liberty law firm to argue the case before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Becket Fund is not yet found on any filings in the Charlotte case. But Becket has added Lonnie Billard v. Catholic Diocese of Charlotte to its online portfolio, which already includes the landmark Hobby Lobby ruling and a current case before the Supreme Court involving a high school football coach who was fired in Colorado for leading midfield prayers after games.
According to the Diocese, the firm will be working for free. Luke Goodrich, one of Becket’s vice presidents and senior counsels, confirmed to The Charlotte Observer on Monday that he will serve as lead defense attorney.
In a phone interview, Goodrich said Charlotte Catholic, has “a mission to pass on the faith to the next generation.” To do that, according to Goodrich, “It is essential that all teachers support that mission.” In Charlotte Catholic’s case, he said, that includes teacher support for Catholic doctrine that marriage is reserved for a man and a woman.
Charlotte attorney Luke Largess told the Observer on Monday that Billard’s legal team is disappointed that the Diocese had appealed “but expected that they would do so.” In written and oral arguments, Largess and the other Billard attorneys said their client was not a minister and had no religious teaching duties. Thus, they said, he was protected under federal law from sexual discrimination on the job.
Billard, a former “Teacher of the Year” at Charlotte Catholic, had retired and become a substitute teacher when he announced on Facebook in October 2014 that he planned to wed his longtime male partner. The post came two weeks after North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriage was struck down in the Charlotte federal courts.
On Christmas Day that year, Billard said he learned he’d lost his job. An assistant principal at Catholic High later told him that the Diocese had ordered his “termination” due to his Facebook post. He sued in 2017. Billard and his husband, Rich Donham, are still married. The case dragged on for years as higher courts sifted through other disputes pitting religious liberty vs. other constitutional protections. In 2020, the Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in the Bostock case that LGBTQ employees were protected from sexual discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. “The answer is clear,” conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority in the 6-3 decision. “An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex.”
In a statement released after the ruling, Billard said he wished he had been allowed to stay at Charlotte Catholic, where he started teaching in 2001. “Today’s decision validates that I did nothing wrong by being a gay man,” he said.
Billard and his husband, Rich Donham, are still married.
In a court filing, the Diocese said it will take its appeal to the Supreme Court if necessary. Goodrich said the case has a chance to get there.