A potentially landmark Supreme Court decision in a dispute over a Colorado wedding cake has put a gay substitute teacher’s lawsuit in Charlotte on hold.
Lonnie Billard, a former teacher of the year at Charlotte Catholic High, lost his substitute’s job after he announced his 2014 engagement to his longtime male partner on Facebook. He sued, charging discrimination by the school and Catholic leaders in Charlotte.
Instead of a trial, both sides have asked U.S. District Judge Frank Whitney to decide the case.
As of Tuesday, Whitney’s ruling is on indefinite delay.
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According to the judge’s new order, the Billard ruling will circle the federal docket until the Supreme Court decides the Colorado case, which Whitney says involves similar church/state issues.
The justices are to hear the Colorado dispute on Dec. 5. They’ll issue a ruling next year.
In 2012, a Denver-area baker refused to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, citing both his spiritual opposition to gay marriage and, more recently, the First Amendment protection of his artistic expression in creating a custom cake. The couple sued, claiming discrimination.
The Colorado Supreme Court agreed, ruling that making a cake, no matter how artistic, is an expected part of the baker’s business – not protected free speech nor the free exercise of religion. The baker appealed.
Fifteen hundred miles east, the opposing sides in the Billard case are debating whether secular employees of religious employers are protected by workplace-discrimination laws.
In 2015, the high court ruled that same-sex marriage was legal nationwide. The Catholic Church recognizes only the traditional form of marriage between a woman and a man, and Bishop Peter Jugis said the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte would be “irreparably damaged” if it cannot fire employees, such as Billard, who publicly challenge church doctrine.
The teacher’s attorneys say Billard is not a minister and thus is protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act from sexual discrimination on the job.
In his order, Whitney said the Charlotte case is a disagreement over law and not facts. Thus, the Supreme Court’s decision in the Colorado case “will provide clarity and could influence a decision by this court.”
Diocesan attorney John McDonald of Charlotte could not immediately be reached for comment.
Luke Largess of Charlotte, one of Billard’s attorneys, said Tuesday he was surprised by Whitney’s decision and disappointed that a resolution for his client will be delayed.
He said his interpretation of the Colorado case is whether a custom wedding cake is a form of First Amendment-protected creative speech that is excluded from non-discrimination laws. That issue, Largess said, would have little bearing on the decision by Catholic leaders to fire a secular employee for announcing his same-sex wedding plans.
Chris Brook, legal director for the North Carolina ACLU, also expressed confidence that Billard will win “no matter how the Supreme Court rules in (Colorado).”