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Federal appeals court rules that Catholic school doesn’t have to retain gay teacher


In line with the Supreme Court Our Lady of Guadalupe decision, a panel for the Fourth Circuit unanimously says religious schools have the right to demand that classroom teachers adhere to their faith tenets and mission.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has ruled that a Catholic high school had the right to fire a teacher due to his homosexual conduct.

Charlotte Catholic High School (CCHS), located in Charlotte, North Carolina, is operated by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte. The school’s mission statement declares that the school is “an educational community centered in the Roman Catholic faith which teaches individuals to serve as Christians in our changing world.”

The school requires that teachers start each class with prayer and attend all-school Mass with students. Teachers are evaluated “on the ‘catholicity’ of their classroom environment, their ability to teach their subjects in a manner ‘agreeable with Catholic thought,’ their willingness to ‘[c]ontribut[e] by example to an atmosphere of faith commitment,’ and their aptitude in ‘implement[ing] the diocesan and school’s mission statements.’”

It also requires all staff to conform to Catholic teaching outside of school.

So when substitute teacher Lonnie Billard posted on Facebook in 2014 that he and his same-sex partner were going to be married, CCHS chose not to invite him back.

Billard filed suit against CCHS claiming it had violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act’s prohibition on discrimination based on sex.

A district court granted summary judgement to Billard, but the ruling was appealed to the Fourth Circuit.

On Wednesday, the Fourth Circuit reversed the decision and granted summary judgement to CCHS.

In a unanimous decision, the appellate court ruled that the ministerial exception to Title VII applied to Billard because his responsibilities included adhering to Catholicism. They wrote,

“Even as a teacher of English and drama, Billard’s duties included conforming his instruction to Christian thought and providing a classroom environment consistent with Catholicism. Billard may have been teaching Romeo and Juliet, but he was doing so after consultation with religious teachers to ensure that he was teaching through a faith-based lens.

The record makes clear that CCHS considered it ‘vital’ to its religious mission that its teachers bring a Catholic perspective to bear on Shakespeare as well as on the Bible.”

In writing the opinion, the judges explained that the case bore great similarity to the Supreme Court’s decision in Our Lady Of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, in which the Court granted a ministerial exception to a Catholic school. The Supreme Court’s opinion argued that the First Amendment bars the government from interfering with a religious institution’s right to decide how they are run.

They also remarked that the case is similar to cases the Fourth Circuit had decided regarding a Jewish mashgiach and a Catholic music teacher/director of music ministry. They wrote,

“Billard taught works of literature rather than supervising food preparation or training people to sing, but we think the principle carries through: The ministerial exception protects religious institutions in their dealings with individuals who perform tasks so central to their religious missions — even if the tasks themselves do not advertise their religious nature.”

The court did say that not all school employees would qualify under the ministerial exception, “[b]ut as the Supreme Court instructs, teachers are different. ‘[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. Under all the relevant circumstances here, we think this teacher falls within the narrow category of employees who ‘serve as a messenger or teacher of the faith’ covered by the ministerial exception.”

CCHS was represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel for the law firm, issued a statement, saying,

“The Supreme Court has been crystal clear on this issue: Catholic schools have the freedom to choose teachers who fully support Catholic teaching. This is a victory for people of all faiths who cherish the freedom to pass on their faith to the next generation.”

Becket also represented Roncalli High School in a case in which the school, operated by the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, did not renew the contract of a teacher who was in a same-sex relationship. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that the ministerial exception applied because the teacher was responsible for teaching the Catholic faith to students.

In Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrissey-Berru, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that it is necessary for a religious institution to have the ability to remove a minister without the government stopping them, otherwise “a wayward minister’s preaching, teaching, and counseling could contradict the church’s tenets and lead the congregation away from the faith.”

That is the issue at the heart of cases such as this one. What has been seen in various religious institutions are people who do not share the belief system of the institution, living in a way that is inconsistent with the institution’s beliefs and mandates, demanding that the institution hire them or keep them on. Those institutions that allow such contradictions soon find their beliefs, their mission, and their impact compromised to the point of being unrecognizable. One only need to look at the Episcopal Church and its affiliated schools to see how quickly that can happen.

As such, no religious school, church, charity, or even a faith-based business should be forced to hire or retain those who actively oppose its mission and values.

The Fourth Circuit got it right with this decision, affirming and further protecting the right to the free exercise of religion and the right to a religious education.

Liberty University Online Academy is a K-12 program designed to educate your children in the ways of the Lord while preparing them to stand firm in their faith when they graduate. Our flexible online curriculum ensures that your student is trained at your convenience and keeps YOU the ultimate educator of your children.

Photo Credit: Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

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