A federal appeals court dismissed a lawsuit from an aggrieved substitute teacher who was not rehired by a Catholic school after it was revealed he had entered into a same-sex union, violating the school’s moral code.

The ruling affirmed that religious schools can hold employees to the moral teachings of the Church.

“Religious groups have the freedom to choose who carries out their religious mission,” Luke Goodrich, a vice president and senior counsel at Becket Law — the group that represented the school in court — said in a post on X

“This ruling is a win for people of all faiths who cherish the freedom to pass on their faith to the next generation,” Goodrich added.

Charlotte Catholic High School ended its relationship with teacher Lonnie Billard in 2014 after he posted on Facebook that he was engaged to another man and planned to enter into a civil “marriage” with this man. This violated the Church’s teachings about marriage and sexual morality and put Billard at odds with the school’s code of conduct, which prohibits employees from engaging in conduct contrary to the Catholic faith. 

Billard had previously taught English and drama full time but had become a substitute teacher by 2014. He sued the school in 2017, when the school stopped asking him to work, claiming that the school engaged in sex discrimination.

A federal court ruled in favor of Billard back in 2021, but an appellate court overturned that ruling on Wednesday and found that the school was protected under the First Amendment’s right to religious freedom. 

“Faith infused [the school’s] classes — and not only the expressly religious ones,” the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in its decision

“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,” the decision read. “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.”

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In addressing discrimination laws, the court found that the school is constitutionally protected under the “ministerial exception” in its hiring and firing decisions for that position because the role requires the person to minister the faith to students. The exception, set by the United States Supreme Court, exempts religious institutions from certain discrimination laws in ministerial roles when such laws would prevent them from adhering to their mission of ministering the faith. 

“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 found.

“The ministerial exception remains just that — an exception — and each case must be judged on its own facts to determine whether a ‘particular position’ falls within the exception’s scope,” the court stated. “But when the exception does apply, it unambiguously commands that [the courts] ‘stay out’ [of these decisions].”

Billard was represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU issued a statement criticizing the court’s decision. 

“This is a heartbreaking decision for our client who wanted nothing more than the freedom to perform his duties as an educator without hiding who he is or who he loves,” the statement read. “Every worker should be entitled to equal protection under the law, and the Supreme Court held as recently as 2020 that this fundamental freedom extends to LGBTQ workers.”

Goodrich said in a post on X that the court’s decision is in line with long-standing precedent on religious freedom. 

“The court’s ruling is consistent with a long line of Supreme Court precedent upholding the freedom of religious schools to select teachers who uphold their faith,” he said.

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