Fired for Announcing Engagement, Gay Teacher Says

(CN) – A former teacher at a Catholic high school in North Carolina claims in court that he was fired after he posted a Facebook announcement of his plans to marry his same-sex partner.

In a federal complaint filed on Jan. 11 in Charlotte, N.C., Lonnie Billard said he began working at the defendant Charlotte Catholic High School as a substitute teacher in 2001, and later was hired full-time to be the school’s drama teacher.

Billard says that during the next 10 years, he consistently received positive performance evaluations, and that when he decided to retire from full-time teaching in 2012, he was named teacher of the year.

He then continued the work as a substitute teacher at the high school for the following two school years.

But all that changed in October 2014, the complaint says.

As recounted in Billard’s complaint, after 13 years together, he and his partner got engaged on Oct. 24, 2014. He made this news public with a post of Facebook the next day.

Billard says his relationship was no secret at the school, and that over the years his fiancé often accompanied him to school functions.

A few weeks later, his having a Christmas dinner with Charlotte Catholic High School alums and employees, Billard mentioned to a colleague that he had not received an assignment for substituting at the school in January.

The complaint says she informed him that a vice principal told her he terminated Billard and was directed to do so by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte.

Billard says he then spoke with the vice principal who told him the diocese instructed him to terminate the teacher because after the public announcement his continued employment would be seen as legitimizing the relationship in the eyes of the church.

On Jan. 9, 2015, the complaint says, David Hain, the diocese’s spokesman publically said “going on Facebook, entering in a same-sex relationship, [and] saying it in a very public way that does not agree with the teaching of the Catholic Church.”

Hain went on to reiterate the diocese’s position that continuing to employ Billard “would be legitimizing that relationship. The church would be saying it’s OK, and it’s not.”

Billard responded in January 2015 by writing the superintendant of the diocese’s schools, asking for written confirmation of is termination. He says he never received one, but has not been called for a substitute teaching assignment since.

In a written statement, he said “I loved being part of the Charlotte Catholic school community, and the classroom has always felt like home to me.”

He went on to say he knows the Catholic Church opposes same-sex marriage, but he doesn’t believe his relationship, nor the fact that he’s gay, as any bearing on his work.

“I have never hidden the fact that I’m gay and my relationship with my partner was no secret at school. 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,” Billard said.

S. Lukas Largress, of Tin Fulton Walker & Owen in Charlotte, N.C., and Christopher Brook, of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, in Raleigh, N.C., filed the lawsuit on Billard’s behalf.

Chris Brook, legal director of the ACLU of North Carolina, said the teacher’s dismissal was a clear case of sexual discrimination.

“People should not be fired because of who they love. Even though Charlotte Catholic is a private religious school, it cannot illegally discriminate against an employee whose job was not religious,” Brook said.