Supreme Court case delays gay Charlotte teacher’s suit against Catholic Diocese

A gay substitute teacher’s lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte has been put on hold until the Supreme Court can decide a question at the heart of his case: Is it illegal to fire someone for their sexual orientation?

Lonnie Billard, a former teacher of the year at Charlotte Catholic High, lost his substitute’s job after he announced his engagement to his longtime male partner on Facebook. He sued in 2017, charging discrimination by the school and Catholic leaders in Charlotte.

Lawyers for Billard and the diocese, which oversees the high school, asked a district judge on Friday to decline from ruling on Billard’s case until the nation’s highest court can rule on a similar question. That motion was approved on Monday.

The Supreme Court said last week it would decide whether federal workplace discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also protects gay and transgender people, taking up three cases on the matter.

Those three plaintiffs — a skydiving instructor in New York, a child welfare services coordinator in Georgia, and a funeral director in Ohio — say they were wrongfully fired for being gay or trans.

They’ve argued they are protected under Title VII of that landmark legislation, which outlaws discrimination on the basis of sex. The Trump administration, as well as three lower courts, say that law does not extend to sexual orientation or gender identity.

Whether or not the Supreme Court agrees could influence the case in Charlotte.

Billard’s suit hinges on the same question, albeit with a twist: He is a secular employee of a religious employer, and the 1964 law allows religious organizations to discriminate — though only on the basis of religion.

The teacher’s attorneys say Billard is not a minister and thus is protected under Title VII.

But Bishop Peter Jugis has said the diocese would be “irreparably damaged” if it cannot fire employees who publicly challenge church doctrine, which only recognizes marriage between a woman and a man.

Luke Largess, a lawyer for Billard, said that if the Supreme Court ruling says Title VII does not apply to sexual orientation, Billard’s case would likely be dismissed by the trial court. But if the ruling goes the other way, it would be much harder for the diocese to prove it had not discriminated against him.

If the lawyers’ request is granted — all but guaranteed — it would not be the first time that a Supreme Court case has delayed a ruling on Billard’s suit.

U.S. District Judge Frank Whitney had previously postponed a ruling in 2017, when the Supreme Court took up a fight between a baker and a gay couple in Colorado over a wedding cake.

Whitney, who said that Billard’s case was a disagreement over law, not facts, had said the wedding cake suit involved similar issues whether or not a religious exemption was in effect.

But the Supreme Court’s ruling did not directly answer that question, and Whitney has since passed along the case to U.S. District Judge Richard Voorhees.

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