CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A Charlotte teacher has initiated a lawsuit alleging discrimination on the basis of sexuality. Lonnie Billard had a 14-year career at Charlotte Catholic High School and says he was out and proud about his sexuality throughout. Beginning as a substitute teacher, Billard was hired on full-time in 2001 and retired in 2013, staying on as a substitute again.
Billard says that during his career at Charlotte Catholic, colleagues and students knew about his sexuality. He even brought his partner, Richard Donham, to school functions.
“I have never hidden the fact that I’m gay and my relationship with my partner was no secret at school,” Billard said. “But whether or not the school previously knew that I am gay is not the point. People should be able to fall in love and get married without risking their jobs.”
The tacit acceptance of Billard’s sexuality changed after a Facebook post in October of 2014 announcing the couple’s impending marriage.
“I thank all the courageous people who had more guts than I who refused to back down and accept anything but ‘equal,’” the post read. “P.S. If you don’t agree with this…keep it to yourself.”
Unfortunately, the church’s reaction to Billard’s marriage was not kept to itself. Two months later, the semester ended and Billard was formally fired. The school’s assistant principal told him it was a response to his Facebook post about his marriage. Representatives of the Diocese agreed.
Less than a month later, David Hains, director of communications for the Diocese, said the firing was a result of Billard “going on Facebook, entering into a same-sex relationship, and saying it in a very public way that he does not agree with the teachings of the Catholic Church.”
“I know that the Catholic Church opposes same-sex marriage, but I don’t think my commitment to my husband has any bearing on my work in the classroom,” Billard stated.
Billard’s lawyers, led by the ACLU of North Carolina, claim that since his teaching job was secular, he cannot be held to religious standards. They say that firing him for his same-sex marriage constitutes sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
This segment of the act has been controversial. Title VII prohibits employment discrimination against individuals based on sex, race, color, national origin and religion. Though the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission interprets sex discrimination as including gender identity and sexual orientation, some at the state and local levels disagree.
Billard’s lawsuit seeks back-pay and benefits, reinstatement as a substitute teacher and an order preventing the Diocese from future discrimination.
Billard was recognized for his excellence as a teacher. Students nominated him for Teacher of the Year every year since the award’s genesis in 2005. He won the title in 2012, his final year teaching full-time.
“I loved being part of the Charlotte Catholic school community, and the classroom has always felt like home to me,” Billard said in a statement.
“People should not be fired because of who they love,” said Chris Brook, Legal Director for the ACLU of North Carolina. “Even though Charlotte Catholic is a private religious school, it cannot illegally discriminate against an employee whose job was not religious.”